Filthy Plane Videos Ignite Debate About Airline Cleanliness

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Recent social media posts suggest that the days of clean flights may be going the way of masks. And they’ve ignited a debate about who bears responsibility.
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The camera pans across the floor below two rows of passenger seats. The carpet is littered with so many potato chip crumbs it appears as if there was a recent in-flight snowfall.
“Cabin crew told us they don’t clean between flights,” reads the caption on a TikTok video taken on a recent Ryanair flight from the Canary Islands to London.
In another recent video, a passenger’s hand thumps the seat, causing a dense cloud of dust-like particles — also resembling snow — to rise up on a Qantas flight within Australia.
“OMG that is foul,” one commenter wrote on Facebook.
Pandemic travel has been chaotic and frustrating. But for the most part, it has been relatively clean, with many airlines committing to robust sanitation practices early in the pandemic, and numerous virus-wary travelers additionally wiping down their areas.
Over the past week, two widely shared videos of particularly filthy planes have raised concerns that the days of clean flights may be going the way of mask wear. They also sparked a debate about whether flight crew or passengers carry the responsibility for messes.
“Flight attendants are not maids,” said Nicole D. Lawson, a flight attendant from New Jersey who does not work for either airline, but has been frustrated by how many passengers fail to take advantage of numerous opportunities to throw their trash in a bag.
What particularly irked Scott, 23, a travel-focused content creator from Essex, England, who posted the Ryanair video, was the flight crew’s attitude. (Scott declined to use his full name because of his day job as a police officer.)
“There was rubbish everywhere,” he said in a phone interview. Beyond all the “crisps” littering the aisles, he spotted a spilled drink and what appeared to be vomit. The crew not only rudely told him that it was not their job to help him clean it up, he said, but they also declined his request for a wipe.
What surprised him about the response he and his partner got on their TikTok and Instagram accounts was how many of the more than 2,000 comments defended the crew.
“They have 25 minutes on the ground they can barely complete safety checks,” one person wrote in a well-liked comment. “Don’t blame them blame the people who left it.”
“If my flight is 20 quid I can handle a few crumbs,” wrote another. (Twenty quid, or pounds, is equivalent to about $23.)
And though the Irish carrier does offer absurdly cheap flights — currently its site advertises international flights for as little as $8 — Scott said he and his partner paid around £200 or about $230 each, which is why he would expect more.
As to what the airline’s official policy on cleaning is, it’s somewhat unclear. In May 2020, Michael O’Leary, the chief executive of Ryanair, told The Times, a British daily newspaper, that the airline did not have time to clean between flights and would deep clean just once a day. In contrast, a Ryanair spokeswoman’s wrote, “Our aircraft are cleaned during every turnaround.” (She did not immediately respond to additional questions.)
Either way, the cloud of mystery particles on the Qantas flight is somewhat more surprising, given that Australia’s largest airline is not a low-cost carrier. The five-hour flight from Sydney to Perth was the most expensive flight Ross Matthews had ever taken, he wrote when he posted the video on Facebook. It was this video, reposted by Daily Mail, a British tabloid, that prompted some to wonder whether even major carriers have relinquished the cleaning standards established during the pandemic.
Indeed, many have. Early in the pandemic, most airlines committed to extensive sanitation measures. These promises gradually faded away for reasons based on cost, inconvenience and science. By the spring of 2020, research had revealed that the coronavirus is unlikely to spread on surfaces, and masking and ventilation systems gradually became the focus for those trying to avoid getting infected. In June 2020, for example, United Airlines said that it would disinfect cabins by spraying an electrostatically charged mist between each flight. By July of the following year, the airline told The Points Guy, a travel-focused site, that it had switched its approach to applying a different type of disinfectant just once a week.
Early this year JetBlue stopped bringing in professional cleaning crews to clean tray tables between flights, something they started doing in the spring of 2020, according to a flight attendant. Similarly, by August 2020, Southwest said it had stopped disinfecting armrests and seatbelts between flights.
Tidying up chips on the floor, of course, is different than coating surfaces with a chemical that is supposed to kill viruses. Airline policies on this issue vary. Some carriers, such as American Airlines, bring in a cleaning crew between every flight, the airline said. Others, such as JetBlue, only do this when flights are coming from abroad. Otherwise, Jetblue, like Southwest relies on flight crew to do light tidying between domestic flights while they are putting seatbelts back in place, according to several flight attendants. Delta claims that their cleaning teams “conduct frequent and thorough wipe-downs of our aircraft interiors.”
By and large, though, flight attendants are responsible for giving passengers opportunities to throw away their trash, but not for vacuuming or wiping anything down. Those sorts of tasks are supposed to fall on separate cleaning crews, who may not get onto the plane before its next flight. Still, some passengers treat planes like sports stadiums by throwing food on the floor, flight attendants said.
“The entitlement is unreal,” said Nastassja Lewis, a flight attendant and the founder of th|AIR|apy, a nonprofit focused on flight attendants’ mental health. “What is so hard about discarding your trash?” she asked.
As to how freaked out by the Qantas cloud passengers should be, it’s hard to say.
“Based on the video, it is unclear what has been spilt on the seat and when,” an airline representative said in a statement, adding that the seat has since been cleaned. The Australian carrier also said that it puts aircraft through “a deep cleaning on a regular basis,” which includes seat covers and cushions.
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