Great, Airplanes Are Cleaner. Do You Care?

No longer distracted by high oil prices, airlines now claim that they’re starting to focus on customer service. Two of them, American and United, think that their biggest issue is dirty planes. Wouldn’t it be great if that were true?

Among them, United Airlines is starting to pay greater attention to its planes, after scoring last in a J.D. Power and Associates survey of airline customer service in 2008 and tying with Northwest Airlines for the lowest consumer ranking of its aircraft interiors.

Starting last fall at O’Hare, United overhauled both how it tackles dirt and stains on its jets and how often it does so, a process it has since rolled out to 13 other cities.

American Airlines, which along with United dominates flights out of O’Hare, has seen passenger complaints about dirty planes fall by 40 percent since it stepped up its cleaning last year, said spokesman Tim Smith.

At a time when airlines are scrambling to attract passengers, ridding an aircraft cabin of grime is a business necessity. Cleanliness “absolutely” affects passenger loyalty, said Jack Smith, senior vice president for customer service with AirTran Airways. “People don’t normally return to a restaurant if they think it’s dirty.”

The Chicago Tribune thankfully realizes that it’s ridiculous to blame the airlines’ customer service woes on dirty planes. Citing “jaded travelers,” the Tribune acknowledges that the clean up might just be a coverup to distract from addressing “deeper underlying service problems.” You think?

It’s great that the airlines are cleaning their planes and all, but maybe, just maybe, they should spend more of their time focusing on actual customer service issues. If they need ideas, we have plenty of stories about United and American that will hopefully inspire them to clean up their act.

United, others get serious about clean planes [The Chicago Tribune]


Edit Your Comment

  1. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot says:

    So they are thinking that instead of people griping about overbooked flights, hours-long delays, missed connections, rescheduled flights, ridiculous carry-on restrictions, paying to eat/drink, etc.. their customers will say “Wow what a clean airplane!” ?

    Must be nice to live in the fantasy world they do.

    • supercereal says:

      @Neecy: Having never been significantly affected by overbooked flights, …, paying to eat/drink (I don’t see how that’s a gripe, but that’s another discussion), I’d have to say that yes, clean planes are very important.

      If I’m going to be stuck in a 1.5’x1.5′ space for hours on end, you bet I’m going to want it to be free of “mystery stains.” If they didn’t clean the planes and instead let them get (more) disgusting, I’m sure you’d be complaining about that, too.

    • Patrick Henry says:


      Agreed. If I don’t enjoy the long lines, ridiculous security and frisking, restrictions on electronics and food, and lack of anything on the plane itself (like a meal.) I no longer fly.

      Gas prices are still half the cost they were before, so now I’ll be driving down to disneyland. It’s not so much about money, it’s more about how much I HATE flying. The whole experience is always awful.

      • Torgonius wants an edit button says:

        @Patrick Henry:
        My wife and I did the math on before our vacation. Flying from NJ to FLA and renting a car was going to be much more expensive than just driving ourselves down. The trade off was travel time.

        So, 5 hours flying time (considering airport nonsecurity delays) vs 20 hours driving each way and a few extra meals. The price difference in flying and renting vs driving was big enough that we could actually extend our vacation 2 days.

        • GirlCat says:

          @torgonius: Also, you can no longer count on that flying time being 5 hours–it can balloon to 8 or more in a heartbeat, particularly on such a busy route. Your drive, while definitely subject to the whims of weather and traffic, is still likely to be in the ballpark that you planned.

          • Psychicsword says:

            @GirlCat: I completely agree I was flying from Rochester, NY to Boston for winter break. At the time it seemed crazy to spend the money on gas plus the 7 hour drive when I wouldn’t need the car(it was a 1 week break). The flight is normally 45minutes to 1.5hours, but it ballooned to a 9 hour flight due to weather delays and that was the time on the plane.

  2. edwardso says:

    I thought they were trying to make the airplane cleaner by not offering snacks and beverages

  3. Tallanvor says:

    What’s with the snark? I fully agree that there’s a ton of stuff they need to work on, but over the last 10 years or so, planes have been getting filthier and filthier, so the fact that legacy carriers have finally realized that one of the reasons people hate them is the fact that their planes are disgusting, and is actually doing something about it, is good news.

    • FreeShaggy says:

      @Tallanvor: Yea, it’s great that my 3x5x3 box I’m shoved into on a plane is clean. No way that it beats possibly hiring more people to work the ticket counter to make lines move quicker.

      • Tallanvor says:

        @FreeShaggy: I said there were other things they needed to work on as well, but one way or anther, I’m usually spending more time in the plane than in line, so, yeah, having a clean plane is important.

    • jeffbone says:

      @Tallanvor: Indeed. Just over a year ago, this same site (rightfully) took AirTran to task on this issue, albeit on a rather extreme case: []

    • polymer girl says:

      Yep, earlier this year I wrote a nice long letter to AA about eh disgusting dirty plane that I was on (blood smears and everything). Cleaning the planes is not a bad place to start.

  4. savdavid says:

    Shouldn’t they have always been doing this?

  5. weakdome says:

    So does this mean they won’t force passengers to sit in pools of urine anymore?

    • catnapped says:

      @weakdome: No, that’s only in First Class (where the “priveleged” fly). The rest of us get to bask in coach smelling a mixture of polyester and pee (but at least you can see out those Windex clean windows!)

  6. nicemarmot617 says:

    Wow, so is Northworst finally going to clean their ancient filthy fleet? I used to fly them in college circa 2001 and their planes were so nasty I wanted to seal myself in plastic before I boarded. I was always afraid I’d catch lice or bedbugs or something during my long flights. I definitely saw bugs on those planes more than once.

    Oh wait, it’s Northworst. Of course they’re not going to clean their planes – the flight attendants will probably urinate in the corners before each flight instead, so you’re distracted from the dirt by the strong odor of urine.

    • MFfan310 says:

      @nicemarmot617: In case you haven’t read the news lately, Northwest has merged with Delta, and they’re planning interior upgrades starting later this year/early next to bring most of their planes (namely the A320-series Airbuses and Boeing 757s) up to Delta standards, IIRC.

      Expect leather seats, Delta’s entertainment system, Wi-Fi… and less dirt.

  7. MisBehaving_GitEmSteveDave says:

    So does this mean next time I fly, carrying a UV/woods lamp wouldn’t be a good idea if I want to sleep well?

  8. edwardso says:

    maybe I’m just lucky but I’ve never encountered a filthy plane

  9. AgentTuttle says:

    Ever sat in the last seat in the very back of the plane? No matter how clean, that row is totally neglected. Hardly bolted down, dirty with weird trash in the pocket. I’m guessing they start at the front of the plane and are over it by the time they get to the back.

  10. SexCpotatoes says:

    Ha, pretty sad when “not having rivers of poo flowing down the aisles,” is a plus they start touting in press releases.

  11. youbastid says:

    I’d be more interested if they were doing something to make them cleaner, as in less of a sealed influenza missile.

    • Etoiles says:

      @youbastid: Once, at IAD, I was sitting at the gate waiting to board my quickie flight to JFK and the woman next to me was chatting on her cell phone — to and then about her doctor(s). She went on, at length, describing every one of her symptoms for her sinus infection and stomach bug. In detail. When we boarded and she turned out to be in my row I very nearly tried to claw my way out of the window.

      Which is a roundabout way of saying: the only thing the airlines could really do about that would be not to let people fly. And that wouldn’t do much either.

  12. TrueBlue63 says:

    Hey people it is a start.

  13. suva says:

    When push comes to shove, the airlines don’t have a chance here. They can clean it up all they want, but all it takes it for one passenger to have a nasty experience in the bathroom, then every other passenger afterwards is going to blame the airline for it.

    After seeing a passenger actually take a blanket into the bathroom, I’m petrified of touching anything when I’m on a plane now. Not completely the airlines fault.

    • thrid001 says:

      @suva: I would check those blankets that you pay for for some excess DNA. I know there are people who have rubbed one out on those blankets

    • lars2112 says:

      @suva: You touch upon a good point, it is the passengers who make the mess (most of the time)… Don’t get me wrong I think the plane should be cleaned after every flight but passengers can’t use it as their own trash bin either.

  14. AlexTheSane says:

    All planes will be dipped in the Hudson River to make them less filthy.

  15. humphrmi says:

    I’m glad that planes will be cleaner, but it does seem to be a way for them to address “customer service” without actually having to deal with those uncomfortable “customer contacts” – by that I mean that adding cleaning crews doesn’t actually put them in contact with customers. Which is what I think they need – more gate reps, more ticket agents, etc.

  16. rexmus1 says:

    I really question the validity of their claims. My younger brother-in-law, who currently lives in my basement (It’s a boy! thanks, recession!)was unable to find any job but to clean airplanes at O’Hare over-night for United. It’s a pretty nasty job, about what you’d expect.

    Early this week, he claims they laid-off about 60% of the cleaning people, and cut his hours from 5-6 nights a week to 2. I realize less people are flying right now, but really: They’ve supposedly increased their deep-cleaning* schedule by… what would that be? Like 1200%? (somebody help me with the math here…) on the whole fleet*, but suddenly more than halved their workforce-it kinda defies logic.
    *Keep in mind, if you didn’t read the article, deep cleaning includes things like cleaning and/or replacing upholstery on seats, same for carpet, replacing arm-rests and various other panels, components, etc. Think detailing your car X10 here…

    • Torgonius wants an edit button says:

      Easy. They laid off most of ‘their’ expensive cleaning people, and outsourced to a company that pays their people much less, and probably doesn’t offer benefits.

  17. theMatrix says:

    There are so many bigger issues, like security, I can’t believe they are making this a priority.

    How about some Customer Service training?

  18. rpm773 says:

    This is funny. I echo people’s statements about the shitty service, but I also raise an eyebrow when they first thing the airlines come up with is the cleanliness of the planes. ORLY?

    Airline: “Now that fuel prices have dropped, we can finally replace all of those wing bolts that are about snap from not being changed in a timely manner. Then we’re going to get to fixing that airplane diagnostics computer that hasn’t booted up since last year.”

  19. vastrightwing says:

    1) Run your airlines like Singapore Air.
    2) Find a way to prevent crying babies and make parents attend to their brats.
    3) If you are going to charge us for food, figure out a way we can bring our own on board without paying airport prices at the terminal.
    4) Stop the annoying rules about booking a flight in the first place.
    5) Allow ticket changes 24 hours before a flight without having to re-pay for the ticket.
    6) If you’re going to have a “rewards” program, make a rewards program, not a complicated SNAFU program.
    7) Stop lying about delays.
    8) Give us more leg room. I can’t sit for more than 30 mins. Before my legs hurt.
    9) Replace those old CRTs that hang from the ceiling with seat back LCDs.
    10) Stop charging for luggage.
    11) Eliminate the TSA scanning. I’m willing to risk a terrorist attack. It’s way less than a plane crash.
    I could go on and on and on…

    • Michael Belisle says:

      12) Solve world hunger.
      13) Cure cancer.
      14) Develop a grand unified theory of everything.

    • GirlCat says:

      @vastrightwing: Heresy, I know, but I agree with #11. I have never been through a post-9/11 security checkpoint that I thought would prevent a terrorist attack. (With the exception of the NYC-Israel roundtrip I took a few years ago. They do not fuck around. Israeli security would make a Girl Scout feel guilty. So much eye contact. Jesus, I’m having a little anxiety attack just thinking about it. I swear to God, I forgot I put the 6-oz hand lotion in my carry-on!!)

  20. Dansc29625 says:

    Heres wishing that Amtrak would follow suit.

  21. Meathamper says:


    BTW, clean aircraft does not equal good service, which airliners have failed to grasp.

  22. StutiCebriones says:

    Carey, no offense, but if you think this sort of thing doesn’t matter, maybe you’ll forgive restaurants if they don’t clean off tables before seating you too. You’re only going to mess it up yourself, and hey, those boogers will keep the plates from sliding around.

    I love to fly. It isn’t like it was in the ’70s or ’80s or ’90s (or even 2000, when everyone around us oohed and aahed over the vegetarian meals that my girlfriend and I ordered in coach), but I love to fly. The only two things I don’t like about flying are kids on the plane (I’ll take the snakes, thanks) and the people who whine about how much it sucks. Oh, and the jerks who lower the windowshades. So yeah, the airlines are acting just as dickishly as every other business these days, and I don’t see why it’s such a bad thing for the airlines to say “OK, you win, we’re going to be a little less dickish.”

  23. The-Lone-Gunman says:

    The only reason I fly these days is because there’s no real alternative offered that works as quickly to get me from A to B.

    At least the TSA offers the marvels of Security Theater to while away the hours until interminable entrapment on the tarmac begins.

  24. OprahBabb says:

    My cousin, Jonielle, is a NAZI about ensuring her “space” is clean when she enters an airplane.

    She will hassle the flight attendant until she gets a straight answer or a fresh pillow that has been “untouched” by another head. (Ha. Good luck with this one.) She then ensures that she is always wearing a jacket with a hood so she was not only pull it over her head but PULL THE TIE CLOSED! (/shakes head — imagine a black Kenny….)

    Oh no, it doesn’t stop there folks. She also carries on handy wipes to wipe down her entire area (even though she has absolutely NO intention of touching anything else, she (not so quietly) sits there with her arms folded until another “germ” appears that she can fuss about. (Damn, OCD ruled Taurens…)

    Aside from being on the plane she is an ab-so-lut blast to be around. :-)

  25. DunderMifflin says:

    TSA = Thousands Standing Around

  26. provolone says:

    There are bigger issues, but I have to admit that I have noticed that JetBlue planes are much cleaner that United, American and Delta planes. I do think this is an important customer service issue because it contributes to how often people get sick when traveling.

    That being said, I hope I never have to fly United, American or Delta again, no matter how often they start cleaning their planes. I’ll stick with the airlines that have better customer service all around… or start taking the train.

  27. Chairman-Meow says:

    Once again the dinosaur airlines play the game of appearing to care when they do not.

    I’m sure during some moronic executive meeting one of the corporate drones told the CEO if they actually clean the planes once-in-a-while that ticket sales would increase 4200.987 percent. The figure is then justified by said drone pointing at a pie chart. The rest of the herd in the boardroom then nods approvingly since any disagreement might jeopardize their bonus & executive membership in the golf club for the following year.

  28. MasterSauce says:

    This is very curious considering I’ve had a job cleaning those planes, both United and American, and frankly, they’ve had jack crap to do with the cleaning in the past.
    Here’s the deal; regional flights? Aren’t operated by the major airlines, but by smaller ones that just rent the planes from the major airlines. Those regional airlines are responsible for the cleanliness of these planes and the flights they’re run.
    My point is this, even if flights actually operated by American are cleaner, all the flights under their banner won’t necessarily be cleaner. There won’t be a uniform cleanliness on all flights.

    Unless they demanded more from these smaller airlines, then this is just a marketing ploy. More so than it seems on the surface anyways.

    PS. Cleaning planes from 11PM to 5Am…Sucks. Hard. Don’t do it.