Op-Ed: Airline Cabin Cleaning Is an Opportunity for Differentiation, Says VX Consulting Founder


Paul Chen

In this instalment of Expert Opinions, APEX Media’s Op-Ed series, Yen-Pu Paul Chen, founder of VX Consulting Chicago, argues that effective cabin cleaning must take passenger perception into account.

I spent some time in the sales department at private jet manufacturer Gulfstream Aerospace, so I understand how exciting it is dealing with brand new aircraft interior design, especially compared to aircraft cabin cleaning. But make no mistake, I’m an aircraft hygiene fanatic. As a CX management consultant, I thoroughly enjoy helping airlines transform life-cycle cabin cleanliness, and did so even before COVID-19.

The truth is, aircraft hygiene has not been glamorous enough to attract airline executives’ attention until COVID-19 hit. Since the pandemic, airlines worldwide have been focusing on reassuring customers of the safety of air travel through cabin disinfection measures. Airlines shared videos of their cabin disinfection procedures, such as fogging or surface wiping being carried out by workers in full hazmat gear. The work scope is markedly above and beyond the typical cabin cleaning done prior to COVID-19, but have passengers seen the results of these efforts?

The deliverables of cabin disinfection work are in fact, not visible. On the other hand, the results of a lack of cabin cleaning are visibly evident, such as traces of trash, crumbs, smudges, stains, you name it. If you simply go on Tripadvisor or any social media, you’ll notice complaints and images of cabin cleanliness discrepancies posted by disgruntled passengers. But have you ever come across any photos showing an aircraft cabin not disinfected? How do passengers even know?

Regardless of the disinfection efforts airlines make, it’s the sight of a cabin’s visibly inadequate cleaning that can harm passenger trust.

Recently we’ve seen various innovations aimed at disinfecting cabin surfaces emerge. However, in a recent cabin interiors-themed webinar hosted by RedCabin, only 19% of online poll participants considered “surface contamination fear” the top ranking concern of passengers. The reality is, many passengers may not be able to distinguish disinfection from cleaning. During the webinar, one of the panellists, Andrew Litavis, product development, JetBlue, hit the nail on the head when he said:

“You might have UV lights that kill every virus on board, but with that smudge on the tray table it doesn’t matter because the perception is that it’s not clean… no matter what we’re doing scientifically to kill the virus to reduce the transmission, as long as the perception is that your aircraft is dirty, then all of the effort is clearly for none.”

Perception is reality. Regardless of the disinfection efforts airlines make, it’s the sight of a cabin’s visibly inadequate cleaning that can harm passenger trust, particularly during- and post-pandemic. In other words, the role of the fundamental cleaning programs which lead to a visibly clean cabin will become more critical than ever.

Here’s the silver lining: On the road to pandemic recovery, cabin cleanliness presents a perfect opportunity to set an airline apart from the competition. In an effort to restore passenger confidence, some airlines have already taken the initiative to brand an overarching program that introduced safety and disinfecting measures throughout the passenger journey. While all these initiatives are laudable, the effectiveness of the essential and tangible cabin cleaning that is ultimately tied to passenger perception is not being addressed enough.

Often when the topic of cleanliness comes up in conversation, airline leaders graciously refer me to their colleagues in the maintenance department. Traditional cabin cleaning programs are aircraft-centric, and passenger perception is not taken into consideration. Use deep clean for example: Periodic maintenance checks and aircraft rotation may dictate its interval if the priority is to consolidate aircraft downtimes from an efficiency stand point. In other cases, the mandates conveniently fall under airport operations, because it manages the premises where cleaning takes place. In both cases, cleaning is optimized for efficiency KPIs, but the pitfall is that they offer little or no consideration of the passenger.

Given that cabin cleanliness and pandemic recovery is about passenger perception management, airlines’ customer experience (CX) departments should be intimately involved, if not actively championing this cross-functional effort. The fact that Delta recently created a Global Cleanliness group within the CX organization was a wise strategic decision that has set a positive example.

Does that move suggest that aircraft cleaning can be recognized as a profit center? That, is a fascinating question.

Paul ChenPaul’s career in aviation ranges from OEM, airline, MRO to Business Intelligence, spanning various corporate functions. As a CX consultant, his blend of experience has allowed him to effectively help airlines identify improvement opportunities with cross-functional perspectives, and to develop innovative solutions that would benefit customer experience across all classes of service throughout the journey.