The motorized “hygienic seats” that a controversial new janitorial contractor installed recently at O’Hare Airport are not very hygienic after all: As the plastic wrapping rotates over seats, it drags up liquid from the rim of toilet bowls and leaves drops of that liquid atop seats, on the clear plastic film that’s supposed to be clean.
The new plastic-wrapped toilet seats are being installed throughout the airport by United Maintenance Co. Inc., the contractor that began work last month under a five-year, $99.4 million deal with Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration.
On Monday, city officials and a top executive for United said they have experienced problems with water pressure and splashing at some O’Hare toilets. But Anthony D’Angelo, United’s director of compliance, said he did not know of the problem that the Chicago Sun-Times pointed out: “Our understanding is that it was clean water, not soiled water, on the seats.”
In a visit to a men’s restroom at O’Hare on Monday morning, the Sun-Times found that any liquid that happens to splash on the rim of a toilet bowl can end up on the seat, where the next user of the stall can unwittingly squat down onto a mess.
In the restrooms closest to the subway station at O’Hare, a reporter tested a reader complaint about the new seats by pouring some orange juice onto the rims of toilet bowls. After the reporter waved over the sensors that activate the hygienic seat motors, the plastic wrapping spun around the toilets—and some of the juice that had been on the rims ended up on the seats.
The same problem was not observed with the older seat covers that remain in use for now in other parts of the airport. D’Angelo said United chose to replace all existing hygienic seats after failing to reach agreement with the company that had supplied seat covers for the airport’s bathrooms for years.
The new “Sani Seat” devices installed on United’s watch are made by a company in New Jersey, according to the firm’s website. Company officials did not return calls Monday, but D’Angelo said that product was “vastly superior” to the old seats. “We think we’re doing a good job,” he said.
Unlike the old seats, the new devices do not feature a digital display indicating when a fresh cover is ready for use, even though United’s contract requires each stall to include “a display which clearly shows a new seat cover.”
The new seat covers also rotate when seats are up, the Sun-Times found, despite the requirement that they do not do that.
In a statement Monday, an Aviation Department spokeswoman said, “We are aware of no airport customer complaints about the toilet seat issue you mention.”
Emanuel also defended the deal with United recently after five aldermen called on the city’s inspector general to investigate it. The aldermen said they were responding to a Sun-Times report that United CEO Richard Simon sold 50 percent of the janitorial company in 2011 but did not disclose the transaction until a year later — after winning the O’Hare contract. Bidders for city business are required to provide city officials with current ownership information.