After spending almost 20 years in the airline industry, including overseeing cabin crew teams as a manager onboard the world’s largest commercial aircraft, the A380, I’ve had firsthand experience with the inconsistent standards of airplane cleanliness, ranging from the good to the bad, to the downright disgusting.
Aircraft cleaning is highly unpredictable. Even airlines renowned for their cleanliness standards fly to airports where they lack complete control over the contracted cleaning company. Unfortunately, these cleaning services often follow practices of overworking and underpaying their staff, resulting in a lack of motivation to deliver a thorough job.
This, in turn, leads to the airline’s cleanliness standards not being fully met for flights returning to the main base.
Due to these unpredictable standards, I find it hard to trust airline cleaning practices completely, and as a passenger, I prefer taking matters into my own hands.
Here is some of the best advice for someone picky about flying cleanliness.
Try and pick an early flight out – the first to leave are the cleanest
Early flights on short-haul routes tend to be the cleanest, writes Jay Robert
In addition to having a higher likelihood of being on time, early flights on short-haul routes also tend to be the cleanest.
Most airlines that operate domestic and short-haul flights adhere to tight schedules, limiting the time aircraft spend on the ground.
Throughout the day, there’s only time to perform light spot cleaning, with some airlines relying on cabin crew to maintain cabin presentability until the plane reaches its final destination for the night stop, during which the aircraft is more thoroughly cleaned in preparation for the flight out the following morning.
Use blankets to cover seats – not yourself
‘On several occasions, passengers have complained they sat in what seemed like clean seats, only to discover that the cushion beneath the cover was soiled,’ writes Jay
This tip is especially handy for long flights, particularly in economy class.
Airlines often provide pillows and blankets for international journeys. Although these essentials are cleaned before each flight, I’ve developed a practice of using the provided blanket as a seat cover, since seats don’t get cleaned between flights.
On several occasions, passengers have complained they sat in what seemed like clean seats, only to discover that the cushion beneath the cover was soiled and damp from the previous flight.
Lazy cleaners often change only the top layer and not the entire cushion, meaning the pillow may still carry stains from body fluids like drool, sweat, and blood.
I suggest avoiding the provided pillows in economy for anything other than back support.
Pro crew tip: Bring your own personally cleaned compact travel blanket and pillow set. If you use the provided bedding, check the pillow under the pillowcase and inspect the blanket before using it. A quick sniff test can help determine if they are cleaned properly. I’ve come across many sour-smelling pillows and blankets during my time in the sky.
The carpet can be nasty
Before placing your bags on the floor, carefully inspect your floor area, especially under seats, as cleaners often overlook these areas.
In a recent incident on a transatlantic Air France flight last June, a couple noticed a horrible smell under their belongings on the floor during the flight. Upon inspection, they discovered the carpet their belongings were placed onto was tainted by blood and faeces from a passenger on the previous flight who’d suffered extreme haemorrhaging. Despite the incident being reported to the airline, the cleaners had overlooked the carpet under the seat.
Pro crew tip: For an additional layer of protection, utilise the plastic wrapping from the provided blanket to cover the bottom of your bag. If you detect any serious cleaning issues during boarding, inform the crew immediately while the door is still open. That way, they’ll have more options to deal with the situation.
Keep your shoes on
‘If you step into a restroom without shoes, rest assured that we’re watching with a sense of repulsion’ – Jay Robert
Following the previous point about the cleanliness of airplane carpets, this advice may seem obvious, but it’s one of the biggest annoyances for flight attendants: passengers walking around barefoot.
Foot odour poses a real threat to air quality on flights
Jay Robert, former flight attendant
If you step into a restroom without shoes, rest assured that we’re watching with a sense of repulsion, fully aware of what we’ve likely just cleaned off that floor before you entered. Just as you wouldn’t stroll around a public restroom without shoes, the same principle applies to an airplane’s toilet.
Foot odour poses a real threat to air quality on flights. I’ve encountered situations where the scent emanating from someone’s bare feet was so overpowering that I had to discreetly spray perfume in that area. There were also instances it was so toxic that I had to wake passengers and delicately discuss the matter, explaining that their foot odour was causing discomfort to others and that it was necessary to wear their shoes.
Pro crew tip: Consider bringing travel slippers in your carry-on. Many hotels offer them as room amenities. If you’re confident your feet are free of unpleasant smells, these slippers can provide a more comfortable and hygienic alternative to shoes.
Clean your seat area
A pro tip many flight attendants swear by is disinfecting your seat area.
Many of us carry disinfectant wipes in our bags, ensuring we thoroughly clean every touchable surface around our seat, including the seat itself if it’s made of a wipeable material.
Key areas not to miss are tray tables, entertainment screens, and controls. I also pay attention to wiping my seatbelt buckle and the AC control. One area I steer clear of is the seatback pocket, as it often harbours various unpleasant surprises, from dirty tissues and diapers to full barf bags. I don’t place my phone or personal items inside it for this reason. If I need to use anything from the pocket, I follow up with a round of hand sanitiser.
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