It’s usually best, in any situation where you end up with your finger touching your eye or grazing your lips, to not think of where it’s been. That goes double when taking any form of public transit, where your hands touch the places all the other hands of people who are just as gross as you have touched (relax, it’s fine, take it from a New Yorker: constant exposure to germs make you indestructible).
So should we triple this advice when taking air travel? It’s a notoriously unpleasant experience that we all deal with by trying to turn our seats into mobile living rooms, stretching our shoeless feet wherever they fit, gorging on snacks on the little tray, drooling mouth fluids all over the blankets, hiding gum between the pages of the in-flight magazine. Sometimes that relaxation goes too far: Comedian Nicole Byer recently found an actual piece of poop in her plastic-wrapped blanket. And were you even thinking about what happens to those seatback touchscreen monitors before this video went viral this week showing a passenger casually swiping through the options with his bare feet?
Of course, planes are “cleaned” in between flights—you know this because it’s one of the reasons you’re given for why you can’t get on the dang plane yet when you can see it sitting right there. It can seem like a nebulous excuse, like telling your editor “just tightening this story up!” when actually you’ve only written about 100 words. So we asked some airlines: what does “cleaning” the flight actually entail?
In between flights
The airlines we talked to (Southwest, Spirit and United) have general guidelines on what can be cleaned in between flights, and what will get attention only during a deep-clean at the end of the day.
A spokesperson for Southwest Airlines told us aircraft cabins and galleys are “tidied and refreshed” between flights by both flight attendants and other crew. That means picking up items from seats, seatbacks and cabin floors. Flight attendants walk through the cabin to visually inspect and pick up junk in each row as needed. The spokesman said the airline, which runs as many 4,000 flights a day, also has portable sweepers on board that can be used to clean carpet areas that need special attention. Other crew members refresh the galleys and can mop the galley floor, if needed. A typical cleaning turnaround is 30 to 40 minutes.
Spirit Airlines, which operates 600 daily flights to 76 airports, follows a similar system, but a spokesperson did specifically mention cleaning the bathrooms:
“All aircrafts are cleaned after each flight,” the spokesperson wrote in an email. “In addition to a full service lavatory clean, we remove all guest trash, restock necessary items, wipe down countertops, vacuum the cabin’s center carpet and disinfect.”
Spirit’s timeframe for completing a cleaning depends on how long the plane is on the ground, and both flight attendants and an outside cleaning crew are used in between flights. Both Southwest and Spirit don’t offer seatback screens, so no worry about your foot-to-finger transmission there.
United is much bigger boy of the skies, with 4,900 daily flights to 355 destinations. A spokesperson told us that between flights, crews focus on the bathrooms and galley. Then each night, tray tables and armrests are wiped down and disinfected and floors are vacuumed. Tray tables and seatback monitors are, in fact, cleaned after every flight.
On United planes, “regular” (the airline didn’t say how often specifically) deep cleans involve washing ceilings and overhead bins and completely scrubbing the entire interior.
Southwest also told us its Aircraft Appearance Teams perform “a thorough cleaning every night,” covering a detailed checklist of items in the galleys, bathrooms and sanitizing of food surfaces, disinfecting all hard surfaces within the cabin and cleaning the carpet.
Spirit has a deeper cleaning program that’s based on aircraft use, which tackles every area of the aircraft, including metal areas under the seats, seat tracks, seat track coverings and leather conditioning plus all galley compartment walls, ceilings and doors are opened and cleaned.
“Our team will spend the entire night on one plane as this clean is extremely detailed,” the spokesperson wrote in an email.
So all this to say is that an airplane is mostly just spot cleaned in between flights, which makes it better than your average bus or subway train, but doesn’t get a deep clean all that often, which is true of most public spaces your body typically occupies and that you don’t think about that often.
How to minimize your germ contact
If this still freaks you out at all, study up on the germiest spots on an airplane and try out some of these germaphobe tips for air travel (or at least learn how to avoid the obvious sick person on the plane). Even Naomi Campbell revealed she’s an airplane germaphobe this week: she shared a video of her preflight ritual that involves actual disposable plastic gloves and scrubbing down every surface (this reporter definitely sides with braving germs over creating a bunch of disposable plastic waste though!).
Giving planes a deeper cleaning would delay your flight more, and some of us would gladly trade a full scrubdown for faster boarding time and cheaper flights. So like we said, it’s best not to worry too much about germs, because they’re not as bad for you as you think. But if you want to wipe down your touch screen before you take off your shoes, no one will blame you.