An Inside Look at the Hazards Faced by Airplane Cabin Cleaners

What it's like to do the dirty job.

October 09, 2014, 4:14 PM

— -- Cleaning an airplane after the passengers leave is no easy job -- it's messy, sometimes disgusting, and can even be downright dangerous, employees told ABC News.

"We encounter human feces, sometimes blood, most of the time vomit from passengers that get motion sick," said Joel Castillo, who works for Air Serv, a company that handles the cabin cleaning for commercial flights. Castillo's job is to empty the blue liquid that's in the toilets on airplanes.

Cabin cleaners are also responsible for sweeping the plane to see what passengers left behind, and they say they often find dirty diapers and half-eaten food stuffed into the seat pockets.

Travelers also leave behind valuables in their haste to get off the plane, but it's not finders keepers for the cleaning crew.

"We find iPads, we find wallets," said Media Paka, 23. "We always have to give them back."

"People's lunch, sometimes they leave that in there. Sometimes we find cereal people pour all over the floor, we have to clean it," she added.

But ordinary cleaning duties aren't what concern Castillo and Paka, who were among the cabin workers who took part in a strike today at New York's LaGuardia Airport. Employees protested unsanitary conditions and lack of training amid heightened fear over Ebola.

Castillo said he's worried about catching the deadly disease because of how closely he works with bodily fluids when he cleans the plane's toilets.

"We work with short-sleeve shirts and most of the time we deal with getting sprayed on," he said. "After, I usually go to my supervisors and ask for a change of clothes but most of the time we don't get it."

Castillo added he and other workers have gotten chemicals on themselves and "whatever else passengers dump in the liquid."

They said Air Serv doesn't provide them with the proper clothes or equipment to handle trash -- or, even worse, bodily fluids -- allegations the company denied.

"They give us an orange vest and khaki pants," Paka said. "But in the winter time, we wear our own jackets so when we pick up the trash all those sodas that people drink inside the plane end up on us."

The company, which also provides airport services such as ground transportation, ramp handling and security, said that its cabin cleaners are adequately prepared.

"Air Serv trains its cabin cleaners in its long-standing safety procedures and cleaning protocols including for blood borne pathogens," Air Serv said in a statement. "These protocols include, but are not limited to, providing cleaners with protective equipment. We continually review our policies and procedures for updates and enhancements, and communicate updates to employees, as necessary -- for example, including an update on protocols for Ebola just last week. As to the union’s organizing campaign, we have no comment."

Cabin workers routinely ride around in vans filled with passengers' trash and employees have also been poked with needles they find in seat pockets, said Elaine Kim of the Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ, which represents the workers.

PHOTO: Vans that are driven by cabin cleaners are packed with trash from flights.
Vans that are driven by cabin cleaners are packed with trash from flights.
Obtained by ABC News

She said the dangerous conditions are a problem among many contractors that work with the airports, not just Air Serv.

"In the New York area, and this is common across the country, people who clean the planes used to work for the airlines," she said. "But now it's contracted out."

The International Air Transport Association, the industry group for airlines, did not immediately respond to ABC News' request for comment.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which oversees LaGuardia Airport, said in a statement that the agency "has agreed to review the concerns raised today by Air Serv’s cleaning personnel at LaGuardia Airport and is pleased they will be returning to their jobs."

The union hosted a training near LaGuardia airport for the workers today to discuss how to clean an airplane with possible Ebola exposure.

The union hailed the Port Authority's decision to review that matter.

"The goal today was to shine a light on the health and safety violations Air Serv workers face in order to protect themselves and keep airplanes safe and clean," the union said in a statement. "They accomplished that together today, and look forward to the Port Authority reviewing and those responsible remedying the situation."

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