The Filth of Flying

Darren Everson

This summer, rampant flight cancellations and delays are forcing many travelers to languish, sometimes for hours, before they can board their flight. Unfortunately, that's nothing compared with what may await them on the plane.

Tales of sweaty waits on un-air-conditioned planes, smelly bathrooms, dirty seats and tray-tables smeared with mysterious schmutz abound this season. Travelers complain that the environment on packed planes can degenerate quickly -- and often long before the plane actually starts moving.

"When you get off a plane, it looks like the morning after a fraternity house party," says Tim Winship, publisher of, a Web site that offers frequent-flier program information and advice.

Horror Stories

One of the most high-profile horror stories this summer was a trans-Atlantic Continental Airlines flight in June, on which sewage overflowed from a lavatory and spilled down the aisle. "It smelled like an outhouse," says Dana Bushman, who was on the flight. Continental later apologized and offered vouchers to the passengers, but Ms. Bushman says she is trying to gather support from fellow passengers to sue the carrier. Continental said it determined that the blockage was caused by someone attempting to flush latex gloves.

Emily Moorefield of Ypsilanti, Mich., is convinced that she got laryngitis on a dirty plane full of coughing kids on a flight from New York's La Guardia Airport to Detroit. "The plastic surfaces seem like they haven't been wiped down in a long time," says the writer and performance artist.

Indeed, delays can affect cleanliness and comfort, particularly with planes now flying fuller. The percentage of on-time flights fell to 74.5% in July from 76.4% a year earlier, according to Summer thunderstorms have been to blame, as have technical glitches like the Federal Aviation Administration computer snafu on June 8.

Because of delays and rebookings, planes can remain in circulation past their scheduled cleaning, says Judy Graham-Weaver, a spokeswoman for AirTran Airways, a division of AirTran Holdings Inc.

Still, the airlines say their schedules for cleaning aircraft haven't changed this summer despite the rampant delays. JetBlue Airways Corp. says its planes undergo a "maximum deep clean" once a month, same as before, a process that includes a thorough cleaning of the lavatories and galleys, vacuuming of carpets and cleaning of seats, seat trays and side walls. Southwest Airlines Co. says its deep-cleaning cycle is 30 days, too. AMR Corp.'s American Airlines says it also keeps a 30-day average. Continental Airlines Inc., like many airlines, says its planes also undergo an overnight cleaning, which includes replacement of soiled pillows and blankets, vacuuming of cabin floors and cleaning of lavatories and passenger seating areas.

Cursory Cleaning?

Between flights, though, the cleaning tends to be cursory. American says that it picks up trash and cleans seat-back pouches between flights, but that it doesn't wipe down tray tables or vacuum while at the gate unless there's an obvious mess that must be addressed. ATA Airlines Inc. also says it doesn't wipe down tray tables between flights unless there's a clear need because of the limited ground time.

And cleaning schedules and corporate policies don't seem to be enough to allay customer concerns. American says that it's in the process of refurbishing many of its aircraft, having found that customers perceive worn interiors to be unclean, even if they're actually spic-and-span.

Bored fliers are also complaining that often the much-touted in-flight entertainment systems that play movies and TV shows are turned off while planes are stuck on the ground. Delta says its flight attendants can turn on the devices while on the ground. American says that its video entertainment is usually turned on during the flight but can be activated during a ground delay. Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. says that because of licensing agreements, sometimes programming can be viewed only while airborne. JetBlue, however, says its TV and satellite radio programming is available at all times except during safety briefings.

Travelers have also been griping about a lack of air-conditioning while planes are on the tarmac -- even after delays stretch for hours. Airlines blame the problem on a breakdown of a plane's auxiliary power unit. The APU, a miniature engine at the tail of the plane, is designed to start the plane's engines and provide electricity and air flow when the engines aren't running. When a plane is sitting in a lengthy line awaiting takeoff, it can use its air-conditioning, but the pilot would prefer to run it via the APU because running the engines uses much more fuel. "Think of it as a four-cylinder versus a V-8," says John Kelly, vice president of maintenance and engineering at ATA Airlines.

The APU doesn't often break down, he says. If it does, though, you could be in for a sweaty takeoff wait. Sitting on the tarmac with the engines on is often out, since that could cause the plane to require refueling, thus removing it from the line.


Airlines also say that air-conditioning doesn't always work as well on the ground as it does in the air. Mr. Smith of American says his airline always operates the air-conditioning but says sometimes the air doesn't flow as hard through the vents while an airplane is grounded, which is one reason why passengers might not feel as cool during a takeoff delay. Cathay Pacific says that it turns on the air-conditioning as much as two hours in advance of a flight on particularly hot days. Some airlines ask travelers to help keep the cabin cool. American says it encourages passengers to leave their window shades down in bright, hot weather to conserve energy and keep the cabin cooler.

Ms. Bushman needed a different type of fresh air after the infamous Continental flight, on which sewage overflowed during the flight from Shannon, Ireland, to Newark, N.J. "I know that smell from spending summers as a teenager on a farm," she says. She adds that she was lucky because she was in first class, away from the spillage. She says that a woman wearing sandals back in coach got sewage on her feet.

Airplane lavatories have been gaining increased attention because of widely publicized stories like the Continental flight and more common breakdowns, like on Jack Wolf's Northwest Airlines flight from Minneapolis to New Orleans on July 20. One of the two coach lavatories was inoperative, leaving one lavatory for all of the coach passengers. There was also one in first class, but Mr. Wolf says that an announcement was made reminding coach passengers to use only the lavatory in their cabin.

Northwest acknowledges that a lavatory was inoperative, that maintenance looked at it before departure and that it was determined that flying with two of three lavatories working (including the one in first class) was preferable to delaying the flight for repairs or an aircraft change. The airline also says that typically in those situations, the first-class lavatory is available to all customers.

Lavatory breakdowns are typically caused by waste tank blockages, industry experts say. Also, airplane toilets function differently on the ground than in the air. While on the ground, a vacuum pump is necessary to generate suction for flushing. While airborne, the pump isn't needed because of the decrease in air pressure. If the pump is broken, then, it's possible that the plane's toilets may work in the air but not while on the ground.

Write to Darren Everson at