The Disturbing Truth Behind Why Airplanes Aren’t Always as Clean as They Should Be

Dirty tray tables, sat-in seats, and untidy lavatories: These are just a few of frequent flyers‘ least favorite things.

Unfortunately, sub-par conditions are a reality of the oft-unsanitary skies. And because we know how much you love to travel, we’re revealing the disturbing truth behind why airplanes aren’t always as clean as they should be.

So, buckle up, because this information is bound to send any health-conscious germaphobe for a serious loop.

1. Airlines rank poorly compared to other service industries

A Thai airlines staff worker cleans the aircraft wearing a surgical mask
Rental car companies and hotels rank higher in terms of cleanliness. | Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Although airlines may be improving in some areas, such as ticket cost and flight crew, they continue to fall short in the cleanliness department. And according to an airline customer satisfaction survey conducted by J.D. Power, there’s plenty of room for improvement.

“Airlines still rank among the bottom tier of most service industries tracked by J.D. Power, far lower than North American rental car companies or hotels,” Michael Taylor, travel practice lead at J.D. Power said in a press release.

Next: Most airlines don’t do the dirty work themselves.  

2. Most commercial airlines contract a cabin cleaning company

An air stewardess arranges bedsheets of a double bed
Most airlines don’t do their own cleaning. | Toh Ting Wei/AFP/Getty Images

Contracting out the dirty work is common practice for lots of businesses. And airlines are no exception. In fact, plenty of North American airlines use companies like ABM, for instance, to handle all their cleaning needs, from cabin interiors to terminal lounges. (ABM cleans airplanes for United, American, Delta, Southwest, etc.)

However, contracting the dirty work out doesn’t always guarantee a perfect job every time.

Next: How long do you think it’d take to clean an entire cabin? 

3. Cabin cleaning crews aren’t given adequate time to thoroughly clean

checks the passengers' seats for forgotten items
Crews only have about six to seven minutes to clean the entire cabin. | Eric Baradat/AFP/Getty Images

Every time you board a flight, do you think about all the people who just stepped off of that same plane? And whether anyone was sick? Or how often they sneezed all over your seat? If so, you’re not alone. We, too, try to convince ourselves the plane was thoroughly cleaned. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

While cleaning crews require 10 to 15 minutes to clean an entire cabin, they’re often only given six or seven, a lead cabin cleaner for ABM told The New York Times. And considering everything they need to clean — gallery, floors, lavatories, seats, and windows — it’s really not that much time at all.

Next: How clean do you think airplanes really are?

4. Deep cleaning only occurs about once a month

dirty bathroom of a commercial airliner
Just think of all the germs festering. |

Turns out, deep cleaning doesn’t occur as often as we’d like. In fact, it only occurs about once a month. And as we know, the cleaning that occurs in between flights isn’t exactly thorough.

Now, just think about how many passengers schlep on and off a given plane in one month’s time. Eek!

Next: Cabin cleaning crews aren’t paid much. 

5. Morale is low; pay is poor

Flight attendants relax after arriving at O'Hare International Airport
Cabin crews often struggle with morale. | Scott Olson/Getty Images

Give your employees a reason to be happy, and they’ll stick around and do a good job. Give your employees no incentive at all, and they’ll be miserable; it’s not rocket science.

Unfortunately, cabin crews often struggle with keeping morale high. Not to mention the pay is nothing to write home about. As The New York Times explains, “Current and former cabin cleaners interviewed by The New York Times describe a work environment where pay is at or near a minimum wage, morale is low and turnover is high.”

It’s no wonder most airplanes aren’t squeaky clean.

Next: Sick people don’t often call in sick when they have travel plans. 

6. High airline change fees deter sick people from switching their flight

`1Sick man with fever coughing
Passengers often fly sick to save money. |

Even when an airplane’s cleanliness factor is less than satisfactory, there’s an even bigger risk. Turns out, fellow passengers pose the greatest threat to a person’s well-being on board. And if all the surfaces they touch aren’t properly sanitized? Well, then it becomes a problem.

Because sick passengers can’t afford or don’t want to pay expensive change fees, the entire plane is put at risk; it’s far cheaper and easier for them to stick with their original travel plans. Maybe someday airlines will realize the costly effects of charging such high change fees and revise their policies.

Next: Extra cleaning doesn’t always happen when a sick person has been on the plane. 

7. Flight crews don’t always relay information when a sick passenger has been on board

Man throwing up on an airplane
Cabin cleaners aren’t always aware of contamination. | DmitriMaruta/iStock/Getty Images

This may be the most disturbing truth of them all. In 2015, cabin cleaners told the Government Accountability Office that “after incidents when a traveler became ill during a flight, the cabin crew does not always notify them of potentially infectious bodily fluids that had contaminated the aircraft.” So, there’s that.

Any airline would say that customer safety is the No. 1 priority. But how many of them are actually making changes to guarantee just that? Time will tell whether overall airplane cleanliness improves across the board.

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