Is It “Privilege” To Demand A Clean Seat From An Airline?

Remember when airlines pushed messages through their apps, and in announcements, that your flight was both cleaned and sanitized prior to boarding? That was only just a few months ago.

During the pandemic passengers expected an elevated level of clean. Most of that stemmed from early misunderstandings of how the virus spread, and from a failure of public health professionals to clearly message updates. It’s a shame we didn’t expect much clean before that.

When first class passengers objected to wine covering their seat, they’re put on blast by another passenger for ‘privilege’ because cleaning up the spill takes time and delays other passengers. And the people whose job it is to clean planes had to come on to clean the plane.

When I’ve questioned broken first class seats, I’ve been asked “do you want us to delay everyone in order to fix it?” I’m genuinely surprised that American Airlines did more here than paper towels because bringing on cleaning crew does take time and jeopardizes an on-time departure. Every minute spent cleaning is a minute before being able to get into the air. That’s why the D in D0 stands for dirty.

Dirty planes, almost regardless of airline, may be the third most common social media complaint – behind damaged luggage and being required to gate check bags when there’s still space in the overhead bin.

The real shame here is pitting customers against each other. Each passenger has a reasonable expectation, I think, that their seating area will be clean. And it’s up to the airline to deliver that while still departing on time, and to do so prior to boarding. By reaching the point of departure that creates the tradeoff where one passenger’s expectation for clean is ‘privilege’ over other passengers (who themselves likely already have clean seats) who wish to depart right away.

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. If the “cleaning” crew has done their job properly it would have been a non-issue. It is understood they have very limited time to clean the aircraft between turns. However, it is unacceptable to have large sticky stains and visible trash and debris left IF they are doing their job properly. It should have been dealt with prior closing the door.

  2. (Disclosure: Part of my former career included quick turn and RON cleaning. I’ve had to clean up some of the most disgusting messes you can imagine. And worse than you can imagine.)
    I’m sorry, but I have disagree here. Basic sanitation is every passenger’s right and expectation. No one riding in Coach. Business, or First should be expected to be seated in or near an obviously dirty, unsanitary seat.
    I have to question if the complainers were upset by the cleaning itself or if they were upset that it was being done for a person in First… Would they have been as upset if it was a seat in Coach or their assigned seat, or even one next to theirs? I suspect not.
    Broken seats aren’t an issue unless it’s your assigned seat. They are typically on the MEL and are supposed to be blocked from assignment or removed from the day map in the CRS.

  3. I recently had a broken tray table on a UA flight that I noticed pre-door closure. I just dealt with it. Wasn’t worth the time it would take for a non-hub mechanic to fix it. I’ve had seats that wouldn’t stay in the upright position. I just sat upright until take off. Not worth a delay.

    Now ifs it’s an itn’l lie flat that won’t recline I’d 100% say something. Id rather delay 250 people than not be able to sleep. Selfish? Yes. Will I lose sleep over? Not more than if I can’t recline.

  4. Greg B. hit the nail on the head. I too am an airline employee. The people that pay my salary are riding in that plane. They deserve a clean and sanitary experience aboard our aircraft. I started in RES before someone realized that I am a pilot. I learned first hand WHO pays the bills. My Dad used to say, “The customer is NOT always right. But, the customer will always be the customer. It’s much easier to keep him happy than it is to get another customer.” ALL of our crews (ACS above/below wing, cabin, flight crew have the ability to “stop the show” when something needs fixing/correcting by concise, immediate reporting to ALL departments associated with “this flight”. The flight crew will document the delay on ACARS and the managers of the offending department get a report as to exactly who is responsible and those employees are called to the carpet explain & retrain. Outside contractors are also held accountable and they know that our company will call them to the carpet, too.

  5. Of course, everyone is entitled to a clean space in which to travel. The question, it seems to me, involves the trade offs between a seat is was not sufficiently clean and a flight delay of indeterminate length.
    I might choose a 10 minute delay to allow the cleaning crew back on the aircraft but I would not choose 30 minutes in delay for something like this.

  6. I get it, and it’s certainly not too much to ask for a clean seat, but the reality is delaying your fellow pax over non-critical cleanliness issues (this isn’t bodily fluid, etc.) is probably bad form. Again, agree that this is the airline’s fault — not the crew, who are doing the best they can based on what they’re given — but nonetheless, if it’s just wine and the alternative is a delayed arrival, I’d say suck it up, clean the wine off yourself, and submit a (well justified) complaint.

    I recognize the incentive structure that this sets up for the airline, but I don’t think there’s a good alternative; demanding that the crew delay the plane to clean it is sadly unlikely to result in improved future cleaning service. And, incentives aside, I agree with the tweet: give the workers some grace.

  7. @Tony – this was identified while passengers were boarding and, at most, it will take 10 minutes to clean which could likely be made up. Sorry but not unreasonable to request it to be cleaned and I would do that instead of sitting in sticky wine and possibly ruining my clothes.

    If people complain because an airline has to clean a seat that is their problem.

  8. So basically the airlines have proven the COVID Theatre folks to be right. It is now back to business as usual. Profits and on time performance over health and sanitation. Who would have guessed. Lol.

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