CLEVELAND, Ohio – Cleveland author Thrity Umrigar’s travel wish list isn’t exotic: Flushed toilets, clean sinks and bathroom stalls that latch properly.
Umrigar, the author of numerous novels and a professor at Case Western Reserve University, travels regularly and believes the restrooms at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport are among the very worst in the nation.
“It’s to a point that I unwittingly flinch before I push open the door because I’m dreading what awaits me,” she wrote in a recent email. “The stalls are filthy, trashed, with unflushed materials in the toilet bowls, reams of paper on the floor etc. This is true whether I’m catching a 6 a.m. flight or returning home at 8 p.m. Many of the doors don’t latch. In other words, it’s a disgrace. And every time I’m there, I think, God, what a bad first impression this must make for travelers and visitors to our city.”
There’s good news on the way for Umrigar and untold other travelers, who have groused for years about the condition of the airport’s bathrooms.
The airport this week started work on what it’s calling a restroom refresh project, which will see the facility’s 13 busiest bathrooms outfitted with new fixtures, improved lighting, new floors, walls, partitions and ceilings.
Updates will also include the addition of adult changing tables in family restrooms and technology to provide immediate feedback from travelers on the condition of the facilities.
The work is expected to last until spring 2025, with each restroom closed for approximately 90 days. The restrooms across from the Food Court are first up for the refresh. Restrooms at the entrance to Concourse A and all the bathrooms in Concourse C will be renovated next.
Last spring, the federal government announced that Hopkins had been awarded $1.6 million for the bathroom remodel, funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. The airport, however, opted to forego the federal dollars because of a requirement that the project receive more than one bid for the work. The airport did not want to delay the project by bidding it out again, and decided to use local funding instead, according to airport director Bryant Francis.
Ozanne Construction of Cleveland was the only bidder on the project and was awarded the $2.7 million contract.
“We had to make a decision – do we put this off by probably a year, or do we want to go ahead and execute the project? We decided that the more prudent decision was not to wait any longer,” said Francis.
Francis said the project was a top priority, even as the airport prepares to completely rebuild the aging terminal in the coming years. He noted that the bathrooms scheduled for renovation are in areas that won’t be rebuilt until near the end of the $3 billion terminal modernization project, which isn’t expected to start until 2025 and is likely to take as long as a decade to complete.
Ultimately, he said, all of the restrooms will be rebuilt as part of new terminal project. “They’ll be more spacious, brighter, easier to navigate with your bags,” Francis said.
Francis, who started at Hopkins in May, also noted that complaints about restrooms are not unique to Cleveland.
“Airports across the country hear about restrooms,” said Francis, who has worked at eight airports in five states.
Michael Taylor, senior managing director of travel, hospitality, retail and customer service at J.D. Power, said airport bathrooms are personal for travelers.
“It’s a signal,” he said. “If your airport bathroom is really clean, people think, ‘Wow – this airport really cares about the experience.”
Taylor has studied airports and airport bathrooms for 26 years, overseeing J.D. Power’s annual Airport Satisfaction Study.
Cleveland Hopkins typically does poorly in the annual survey, finishing fourth from the bottom among similarly sized airports in the most recent study, released in September.
Taylor said there is a strong correlation between an airport’s restroom scores and the airport’s overall ranking.
Taylor described Cleveland’s bathroom scores as “not bad but not great.”
There are at least a dozen airports with restroom scores worse than Cleveland’s, said Taylor, although he declined to reveal which airports they were. Airports with overall scores lower than Cleveland include Newark, Toronto, Seattle, Philadelphia, Honolulu and Hartford.
The airport with the best restroom scores is Tampa International Airport in Florida. Taylor said the airport uses a technique known as “distraction” – featuring large photos on restroom walls of, for example, beach scenes or soaring pelicans, to distract travelers from noticing paper on the floor or water on the counters.
Given the high traffic, Taylor said it’s impossible to maintain clean airport bathrooms all the time. “Keeping an airport bathroom clean is like shoving snow off your driveway while it’s snowing,” he said.
Newer bathrooms almost always score better than older ones, he said. For years, Singapore’s Changi International Airport, which consistently ranks as the world’s best airport, had a program to replace its restrooms every three years.
Many of Cleveland’s bathrooms, meanwhile, haven’t been remodeled for nearly 20 years, said Francis.
Francis said the restroom remodel underway also includes the addition of interactive signage that travelers will be encouraged to use to alert staff when a bathroom needs attending.
“Each one of us can make things a little better, a little nicer,” said Francis. “A wipe of the counter goes a long way. Simple things like that can make a huge difference.”
The airport is also hiring new employees to get the custodial staff up to full strength, he said.
Frequent flyer Thrity Umrigar, meanwhile, offered a few suggestions of her own – including, for example, assigning an attendant to the busiest bathrooms at the busiest times.
“I realize that all of this costs money,” she said. “But maybe some kind of private/public partnership is possible? Maybe local companies can sponsor a bathroom or two?”
She added, “Some creative solution seems necessary because the airport is literally the gateway to Cleveland for so many business travelers and other visitors.”