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

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

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

When people think of work at the airport, they often think of the romance of being a pilot or a flight attendant – traveling for free, getting paid decently, maybe meeting a few celebrities in first class. They don’t often think of working on the ramp side of the airport, behind the scenes jobs that not many people research but can teach you a little more about life and yourself.

I’m always surprised that I ended up cleaning the planes. When I started attending Long Beach City College in 2013, I was passionate about my major (Sociology) and I couldn’t have been happier. But in the middle of the first semester, I was in financial trouble. My financial aid covered the registration fees, books, supplies, course materials and school fees. But I couldn’t afford accommodation, transportation, food, health care, or other basic items. I often had to choose between having lunch and taking the bus to attend classes.

When the spring semester ended that first year, I had good grades and books that I no longer needed, but I didn’t have fifty cents in my name. I decided that if I was going to be able to afford to study full time, I would need a full time job.

I applied for all the entry level jobs I could. McDonald said I was overqualified. I applied for a nine week certified nursing program, but I opted out because I couldn’t wait nine weeks to receive my first stipend.

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

I started out as an airplane cabin cleaner on the cemetery shift. After a safety briefing, my colleagues and I were divided into crews of five to six, and we were assigned three to five planes.

We spent about an hour or two doing a ‘deep clean’ – cleaning every tray, window, wall and armrest, and securing all cabin compartments. We have restocked the toilets, cockpit and galleys. We also checked each security compartment and replaced any missing items. And then we dismantled the cabin – a thorough security search that involved taking the plane apart. It’s true, the Transportation Security Authority does not secure aircraft; cabin cleaners do.

It could be disgusting work. When planes came in long distance from London, Sydney, Narita or Hong Kong, it was horrible. Garbage overflowed from every bin and was stuck in every compartment. You will find vomiting in the sink and excrement is spreading in the bathrooms inside and outside.

I discovered – to my surprise – that I liked how peaceful the airport could be at night. The work went quickly. I made friends with colleagues. But working at the airport and going to school did not fit together easily. Some days I was too exhausted from working in a cemetery to go to class. Other days I didn’t have time to finish my homework because of a busy work day. On the days I went to school, I slept too long for work and came late.

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

My family was disappointed. My grandmother, with whom I lived, emphasized that work is temporary, but education is eternal. I justified my absence from school by deciding that I would get everything I could from the work experience. So I went beyond cleaning, to work as an operational dispatcher for cabin services in the American Airlines traffic control center, assigning cleaning crews to each incoming aircraft.

Where cabin cleaning required a lot of physical labor, being a dispatcher required planning and strategy for where and when to send cleaners. Unfortunately, management liked my planning skills so much that they overloaded me with work. I often felt abused – forced to leave eight hours straight without lunch or a break. When I tried to bring it to the attention of a manager, my complaints were dismissed. Then a new direction arrived. They pushed even harder, demanding even more work without breaks and requiring overtime. People have been made redundant or resigned and have not been replaced. As a dispatcher, I went from 40 employees (10 teams of four employees) on a shift to 18 to 20 people (6 teams). But there were still so many planes to clean.

Fortunately, the contract company again got new management, which was open to hearing from employees. More and more employees were being hired and colleagues were given raises and promotions. In 2018, I approached my manager about his return to school. To my surprise, he said yes. But just at the start of the new semester, our company lost its contract with American Airlines.

I felt stupid. From now on, I would neither have a job nor an education. If I had been able to stay in school full time, I would have graduated in spring 2017.

The airport taught me lessons the school couldn’t – about business, strategy, work ethic, the value of a dollar (we worked so hard for our money). But I needed to go back to school. After five years of cleaning planes at LAX, never flying on one, I had finally learned what my grandmother meant when she said your job was temporary and your education was forever.

Shanice Joseph is a sociology student at Long Beach City College. She has a passion to help her community and educate others through her writing.

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