Airlines Clean Planes Less Often Than You Think, And What About Those Blankets?

The UK’s Sun runs a scare story on germs on planes. (HT: Ken A.) Now, I’m absolutely worried about germs on planes. But much of what’s presented in the piece is flat wrong.

  • They claim “the only deep clean on planes happens overnight”

  • “[S]ome airlines even re-use their blankets without washing them”

I wish airlines deep cleaned their planes each night! However if a blanket is wrapped in plastic you’re good. I wouldn’t use a blanket that isn’t wrapped, though.

United Polaris Bedding and Pajamas

Airlines do a quick clean between flights, but that doesn’t usually involve even ensuring that seat back pockets are emptied except for the most obvious trash. First flight of the day is going to be the cleanest, but that’s not because there’s a deep clean just more than trash pickup usually (and because there’s time onboard without passengers where many germs have time to die).

Cleaning schedules vary by airline and also the routes planes are on, there’s more done with aircraft flying in and out of hot spots for things like Zika than, say, aircraft flying domestically. Here’s a 3 year old Scott McCartney piece describing the deep clean cycles for major US airlines.:

Carriers don’t report what they spend for cleaning, but some have said they reduced costs in that area when pinched economically. They have also mentioned boosting spending on cleaning during economic recovery after customer complaints about dirty airplanes. Two years after emerging from bankruptcy reorganization, United said it would do “deep cleanings” on planes several times a year, instead of once every 18 months, after increased customer cleanliness complaints.

…Every 35 to 55 days, depending on the aircraft type, United planes get a “deep cleaning” that includes washing the ceilings and sidewalls and the seat-bottom cushions. American says it does its version of deep cleaning—washing seat cushions and cleaning carpets and floors, lavatories, bins, tray tables—every 30 days. Delta said its planes get a deep cleaning every 90 to 100 days when jets get regular maintenance work.

Years ago Delta was also on a 15 to 18 month cycle.

Airlines That Don’t Fix Their Planes Can’t Be Expected to Clean Them

Three years ago I asked American about their blankets and pillows and was assured if they’re in a plastic wrapper they’re clean.

We have verified that AA does not ever fold a blanket, and we do not ever place used blankets or pillows back into a sealed wrapper. We have procedures to replace these used items with fresh ones throughout our system and throughout the course of an aircraft’s flying day.

For example, here at DFW such used items are pulled from an aircraft by our contractors and sent to an industrial cleaning facility in South Arlington. They in turn launder these, seal and re-supply our inventory.

This is all contractual and there is oversight to ensure procedures are adhered to.

On long haul flights I use the blanket as a makeshift mattress pad. On domestic flights in first, if I am going to take my shoes off (don’t worry, I wear socks and I shower regularly and I don’t do this often) I’ll lay the blanket down on the aircraft’s floor so my feet don’t touch the dirty ground. I’m something of a germaphobe. I fly regularly and that alone increases my chances of getting sick, while I’m busy enough that getting sick has significant consequences for my schedule. I carry hand sanitizer in my Freedom Baggie and use it inflight (including after washing my hands in the lavatory, and I use a paper towel to open and close the door as well).

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. @Gary A Colonel in Infectious Disease at Walter Reed once told me that over 90% of the germs that enter an “adults” body come from rubbing your eyes with your dirty germ infested hands……….since that time I have followed that advice religiously and will only touch hand to eye after a soap and water wash or a Purell cleanse……….no more pneumonia and no more long flu bouts………..

  2. I carry disinfecting wet wipes to which I typically add a little alcohol and always at least wipe off my tray table and armrests. Why? Because the airlines don’t. I became more serious about this after wiping down my first class area on an AA flight from HKG to DFW and the cloth came away grey…..
    If there’s no antimacassar, I typically wipe off the headrest too.
    On international flights I’ll get the whole seat area and especially any handset or remote.
    I’m not typically a germophobe, but as I said, I clean because the airlines don’t. And with international flights sometimes arriving from areas that originate some very interesting bacteria and viruses, I would rather be safe than sorry.

  3. I guess airplanes are pretty gross, but really, the worst thing people will probably walk off the airplane with is a cold or the flu.

  4. So Gary you think the airplane floors are too dirty for your socks to touch, but you have no qualm about the blanket that was rubbed on that same dirty floor being used by the next passenger?
    Maybe even touching their face?

  5. @S:

    Get off your high horse with regard to passengers taking off their shoes.

    Like Gary, lots of us know that taking off your shoes AND putting on an additional fresh pair of socks or booties is pleasant and sanitary.

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