How often do planes get washed?

A shiny new British Airways A380. Clean as a whistle! (Photo: British Airways)

A shiny new British Airways A380. BA says that it “takes a lot of muscle” to keep planes clean (Photo: British Airways)

Like a shiny, freshly washed and waxed car, a shiny, clean plane is a thing of beauty. Right?

But have you ever excitedly peered out at the plane you’re about to board and thought, “Hmm, that big bird needs a bath!”

As much as what’s inside the plane is what counts, that first impression of the outside of the aircraft may be even more important. If it’s dull and grimy on the outside, you might raise an eyebrow and wonder what you’ll see inside.

So we asked several airlines about how they keep their planes sparkling clean — or at least try to.

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“We wash the exterior of our aircraft every fifty days, and that schedule is the same regardless of fleet type,” United Airlines’ Jennifer Dohm tells TravelSkills. “The locations for washing are determined by where the aircraft are laying over at an airport for at least eight hours. As a global airline, United’s wash locations are found throughout the world at fourteen airports including Houston, Newark, Singapore, Hong Kong and Sao Paulo.”

All United aircraft are washed by hand (Photo: United Airlines)

All United aircraft are washed by hand using extension poles (Photo: United Airlines)

“The washing schedule is the same year round; it doesn’t vary by season,” Dohm notes, although “in the winter, we add three additional locations in Florida. A widebody aircraft typically takes about five hours to wash with a crew of three to five people and it’s all done by hand using an extension pole.”

Across the Atlantic, Richard Goodfellow from British Airways explains that the frequency its planes are washed “depends on the aircraft type, but typically every six to eight weeks. We try to wash the short-haul ones more often as they do more take-offs and landings each day than a long-haul jet.”

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British Airways mostly washes its aircraft at the airline’s London Heathrow and Gatwick hubs, using “specialist cleaning detergent, high lifts, aircraft brushes and quite a bit of muscle!” Each aircraft takes up to eight hours to wash.

Does the schedule differ at various times of year, we asked. “Not particularly,” Goodfellow said, but noted that, “Obviously it is not practical to wash aircraft in certain poor weather conditions.”

Video: Watch an Air France A380 get a special kind of bath

Meanwhile, James Boyd at Singapore Airlines tells us, “Our aircraft are washed monthly. This does not include additional washes required if dirty spots are found on the aircraft. Our aircraft are washed at designated bays at Changi Airport in Singapore. It typically ranges from two to five hours, depending on the general condition of the aircraft and the services required.”

Singapore uses “an aircraft cleaning robotic system, scissor lifts, aerial lifts and water tankers,” and its schedule doesn’t differ between its aircraft types (although SQ operates only widebody aircraft so its planes are all in the ‘large’ category) or dependent on the time of year.

Washing the underbelly of a United Airlines jet-- it takes a lot of elbow grease! (United Airlines)

Washing the underbelly of a United Airlines jet– it takes a lot of elbow grease! (United Airlines)

Interestingly, no airline would tell us how much it costs to wash an aircraft, citing commercial sensitivity. Nor would any carrier comment on whether they intend to wash their planes more or less frequently than other airlines.

So it seems that “the world’s cleanest airline” isn’t (yet) part of the advertising we’ll see at the airport.

But which airline has the dirtiest planes? Sound off below or, better yet, send your super clean or super filthy aircraft pictures to us via email, and we’ll post them here. 

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