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What I learned from 5 years of cleaning airplanes in the middle of the night

August 30, 2020, 2:00 PM UTC
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

The airlines provide barf bags, but the dirty secret is that people often don’t use them. They throw up on the floor and the seats. This is not a society that cleans up after itself.

This is one of the lessons I learned, all too well, when I was trying to support my college education by cleaning the insides of airplanes at LAX in the middle of the night.

When people think about working at the airport, they often think of the romance of being a pilot or a flight attendant—traveling for free, being paid decently, maybe meeting a few celebrities in first class. They don’t often think about working on “the ramp” side of the airport, in behind-the-scenes jobs that few people seek out but can teach you quite a bit about life and yourself.

I’m still surprised I ended up cleaning planes. When I began attending Long Beach City College in 2013, I was passionate about my major (sociology), and I couldn’t have been any happier. But by the middle of the first semester, I was in financial trouble. My financial aid covered the cost of enrollment, books, supplies, course materials, and school-related fees. But I could not afford housing, transportation, food, healthcare, or other basics. I often had to choose between eating lunch and having bus fare to attend class. 

When spring semester ended that first year, I had good grades, and books I no longer needed, but I did not have fifty cents to my name. I decided that if I was going to be able to afford to be a full-time student, I would need a full-time job. 

I applied for every entry-level job I could. McDonald’s said I was overqualified. I applied for a nine-week certified nursing program but deregistered because I could not wait nine weeks to receive my first stipend. 

Eventually, I was hired by a contract company under American Airlines at Los Angeles International Airport. On paper, it was decent job. We received full-time hours, flexible schedules, health benefits, and $9.40 hourly (in 2013, California’s minimum wage was $8). 

I started as a cleaner of aircraft cabins on the graveyard shift. After a safety briefing, my coworkers and I were split into crews of five to six people, and we were assigned three to five aircraft. 

We spent around an hour or two doing “deep cleaning”—cleaning each tray table, window, wall, and armrest, and securing all compartments in the cabin. We restocked the lavatories, cockpit, and galleys. We also checked every safety compartment and replaced any missing items. And then we dismantled the cabin—an extensive security search that involved taking the aircraft apart. That’s right, the Transportation Security Administration does not secure aircraft; cabin cleaners do. 

This could be disgusting work. When planes were coming long-distance from London, Sydney, Narita or Hong Kong, it was horrible. Trash would overflow every bin and was stuck in every compartment. You’d find throw-up in the sink, and feces spread in places both inside and outside bathrooms. 

I discovered—to my surprise—that I enjoyed how peaceful the airport could be at night. The work went by fast. I made friends with co-workers. But working at the airport and going to school did not fit easily together. Some days I was too exhausted after working a graveyard shift to get to class. Other days I didn’t have time to complete school assignments because of a busy workday. On the days I went to school, I would oversleep for work and come late.

By the end of the fall 2014 semester, I was on academic probation and I had received a final warning for my attendance at my job. So I chose to stop school and continue working, a decision I would later regret.

My family was disappointed. My grandmother, with whom I lived, stressed that a job is temporary, but an education is forever. I justified missing school by deciding that I would get everything I could out of the work experience. So I rose beyond cleaning, to working as an operational dispatcher for cabin services in the American Airlines traffic control center, assign cleaning crews to each incoming aircraft.

Where cabin cleaning required much physical work, being a dispatcher required planning and strategizing for where and when to send cleaners. Unfortunately, management loved my planning skills so much they overworked me. I often felt mistreated—forced to dispatch for eight hours straight without a lunch or a break. When I tried to bring it to the attention of a manager, my complaints would be dismissed.  Then new management arrived. They pushed even harder, demanding even more work without breaks, and forced overtime. People were terminated or quit and weren’t replaced. As a dispatcher, I went from having 40 employees (10 crews of four employees) on a shift to having 18 to 20 people (6 crews). But there were still just as many planes to clean.

Fortunately, the contract company again got new management, which was open to hearing from employees. More employees were being hired, and coworkers were getting raises and promotions. In 2018, I approached my manager about returning to school. To my surprise, he said yes. But just as the new semester was starting, our company lost its contract with American Airlines. 

I felt stupid. Now I would have neither job nor education.  If I could have stayed in school full-time, I would have had my bachelor’s degree in spring 2017.

The airport taught me lessons that school could not—about business, strategizing, work ethics, the value of a dollar (we worked so hard for our money). But I needed to go back to school. After five years cleaning planes at LAX, and never flying on one of them, I’d finally learned what my grandmother meant when she said that your job is temporary, and your education is forever.

Shanice Joseph is a sociology student at Long Beach City College. She has a passion for helping her community and educating others through her writing. This piece was written for Zócalo Public Square.