Flying the Filthy Skies

Passengers, airlines fight back against dirty airplanes

Dirty seats. Sticky tray tables. Seat back pockets that look like wastebaskets.

Some travelers complain planes are filthy -- and are getting worse. Passengers believe the planes on most major airlines are dirtier today than they were three years ago, according to a recent survey by the consumer research group JD Power and Associates.

Airline customers are fighting back by posting photos of dirty cabins on the Internet in an effort to embarrass the offending airlines and push them to clean up their acts.

The dirty cabins leave travelers such as Karen Dembereckyj wondering how often the planes are really cleaned.

"I almost don't want to know, because it might be scary to find out the truth," she said as she boarded a flight with her family at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.

Veteran flight attendant Kelly Skyles said she has seen it all in her years in the sky -- including nasty things passengers leave behind, especially in the seat pockets. She's found dirty diapers, needles and even cups of used chewing tobacco.

Apparently, a lot of passengers forget what Mom used to say about cleaning up their own mess.

"I think people forget that when they get off that plane, it's going to turn around and be somebody else's plane for their flight," Skyles said.

Fort Worth-based American Airlines has taken a critical look at cleaning in recent years and has changed the way it cleans.

"We started at the back of the aircraft and worked our way forward and went through every component on the aircraft," said Mark DuPont, the American Airlines vice president who heads the airline's cleaning efforts.

Today, every American plane gets scrubbed down every night, including the tray tables, armrests and overhead bins.

Every 30 days, each plane gets what's called an "ultra clean," which DuPont described as a "deep-dive" cleaning, during which the upholstery is stripped off the seats and the entire plane is detailed.

"We realize one of the most critical components of the operation is having a clean aircraft," DuPont said.

The airline said its internal surveys show passengers have been happier with the cleanliness on board since American launched the effort.

But the biggest challenge comes during the day, in between flights.

Tight turnaround times and late fights can leave less time for cleaning at the gate as the plane is readied for its next trip. But flight attendants say passengers can all do more to help.

"I cannot stress this enough: Do not use your seat back pocket for trash," Skyles said.

Instead, hand trash over to the flight attendants as they come through the cabin, she said.

And for whatever the airlines miss, passengers say they are carry their own line of defense: lots of hand sanitizer and wipes for whatever may be lurking in the seats.

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