How Do They Wash The Outside of a Plane?

On lazy days, I drive my car to the Car Wash service that faces a petrol station of a local supermarket. I pay them £0.99 and tell them that I need a basic wash, for the car that is, before they hose it down, scrub the sides and hose it down again. I then proceed through this square shaped tunnel, towards a gigantic fluffy brush that looks like a cross between a Twister ice lolly and a duster. Then I sit in my car, gear on neutral, and ponder about the sign which warned me that they will not be liable for any damage caused during the wash – against the tune of a heavy shower and the attack of another set of dusters turned blue, fluffy monsters – before it is all over and my car is all clean – no damage done. I’ve always wondered if the same applies to a commercial airplane – that they go through a similar machine with a bigger, fluffier duster that rotates for the front, back, windows and winglets…

Recently Boeing posted a picture of their P-8A Poseidon going through what looked like a set of sprinklers at the wash facility in RAF Lossiemouth. This was done to ‘‘rinse off saltwater to stop long term damage’’ – no fluffy brush in sight but still very impressive. This is just one of the ways a plane can be washed.

Boeing plane going through a rinse system to remove saltwater
| © Boeing

What are The Types of Washes?

Like a car, a plane can accumulate dirt and grime on its external surface during the course of a flight and if left uncleaned, this can reduce its appeal and make it less streamlined or aerodynamic in the case of a plane, whilst increasing its fuel consumption. And like a car, there are different types of washes when it comes to cleaning the exterior. For this piece, I will focus on the three main types.

Traditionally, planes are cleaned by using high pressurised water. Southwest Airlines (SWA) follows this tradition. For four nights each week, SWA ground staff gather outside to wash the aircraft by hand. First, they cover any open surfaces. For instance, they insert circular cushions inside the engines, they tape over the sensors and the outflow valves before hosing them down. Often, they only use soap for parts that have heavy duty grime, for instance the underside (belly) of the plane before scrubbing it off with brushes and then hosing the surface down with more water. This of course uses a lot of water and amid issues concerning biodiversity, this is simply not sufficient.

SWA ground cleaning crew hosing down SWA aircraft
| © SWA

Other airlines have decided to take another approach. For instance, Emirates has moved to using a ‘dry wash’, whilst KLM opts for a semi dry wash. The difference is that Emirates sprays the plane’s exterior surface with cleaning agents then wipes it all off with wipes attached to extendable brushes without the use of excess water, whereas KLM chooses not to spray the surface and then goes straight for the wiping again with extendable brushes. Both taking place inside hangars which are spaces used for the storage and maintenance of airplanes. Both saving a lot of water.

Emirates maintenance cleaning crew washing an A380
Emirates A380 | © Emirates

Saving Water & Saving the World

According to United Nations, who celebrates World Water Day each year in March, ‘‘water has enormous and complex value for our households, food, culture, health, education, economics and the integrity of our natural environment. If we overlook any of these values, we risk mismanaging this finite, irreplaceable resource.’’ In this way, saving water and/or using it efficiently helps to sustain resources for the rest of the world, its environments and organisms.

This is the main reason why Emirates and KLM use as little as possible when it comes to water. Through the semi-dry wash method, KLM say that they save approximately 8 million litres of water per year, whilst Emirates say that they save 11.7 million litres of water per year with their method of a dry wash – one that gives their aircrafts that extra bit of shine.

KLM maintenance cleaning crew cleaning parts of a KLM aircraft
| © KLM

So there we have it –  there is no automatic cleaning machine that planes go through because most of them are washed by hand, except for the use of rinse systems to rid them of e.g. saltwater. Although some planes do taxi through a similar square shaped tunnel (a hangar) for a wash or storage.  Given how much water can be saved through the semi/dry wash methods for a plane, I’m going to stick with a packet of wipes and/or a bucket of soapy water when it comes to my next wash, for the car that is.

Featured image: | © Emirates 

Which is the best type of wash for an airplane? Do let us know below!

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Claudia Mok
Claudia Mok
Editor in Chief for Travel Radar: She is experienced at taking creative, analytical approaches to travel, transport and aviation.


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