Early indications suggested that the air fresheners were working. Metro said: In the three months after the air fresheners were first installed, customer ratings of cleanliness on the Green line trains increased 15 percentage points.
“That did have a pretty nice impact quickly,” Metro’s Chief Performance Officer Andrea Burnside said at the time. “I guess if [the trains] smell good, people feel they’re clean.”
Burnside said officials were considering expanding the program to more lines and trains.
But that was … before.
The week after Metro’s announcement late last month, the Washington Post published a story about the pilot program. The backlash was swift.
“What is Metro thinking?” a reader named Ann wrote in an email after reading the story. “If I get on a train with air fresheners, then Metro has lost another rider.”
Ann’s concern? Fragrances, perfumes and air fresheners are “cloying” at best, she said. At worst, artificial scents can hurt people with allergies.
She wasn’t alone in her worries.
“For me, a whiff of many perfumes and air fresheners is enough to trigger a migraine that will last for hours — far longer than the duration of a train ride,” said Paula J. Bryan of Arlington.
“Air fresheners can violate Americans With Disabilities Act regulations for those of us with allergies to scented products. Air fresheners can have many unregulated and unlisted ingredients,” pointed out Nina S. Faye of Hyattsville.
Leila Afzal, who lives in the District, cataloged her gripes.
“Has anyone asked about the effect these perfumes could have on chemically sensitive persons whose allergies or asthma could be triggered by the air fresheners?” Afzal wrote. Even more than that, she said, the practice was deceitful.
“It seems to me that instead of properly cleaning the Metro system they are masking the smells with perfume,” Afzal added. “Reminds of the Medieval approach to cover body odor with scents rather than bathing.”
Shelagh Smith of Rockville delivered an ultimatum.
“If this continues and spreads to other lines, that will be the nail in the coffin for my ability to ride Metro,” Smith wrote.
And, in her letter to the editor, Janet Goldberg of Riverdale argued that the pilot was simply a waste of time and money.
“How does the smell of mango melon fight the germs embedded in the environment of Metro trains?”Goldberg wrote. “Shame on Metro.”
Metro caught wind of the complaints. They said that the air fresheners they chose to use in the pilot were certified as eco-friendly and safe for people to breathe, but even so, they’re backing away from the program — for now.
“I’m looking at it,” Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld, when asked about the program last week. “I told [Burnside’s team] to come back to me, and let me understand it better.”
Wiedefeld said he recognizes the concerns pinpointed by riders, but he’s hoping to find a solution to Metro’s aromatic issues that don’t put too much of a burden on scent-sensitive customers.
“I mean, I understand some of the concerns there,” Wiedefeld said. “But we have a lot of people coming in with all kinds of perfumes and everything else on the train every day, so I think maybe there’s a balance there somewhere.”
And here’s the thing: The pilot actually wrapped up all the way back in March. The air fresheners existed on 6 percent of the fleet for three months, and were then removed.
And during that whole time, Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly said, the agency received no complaints from riders about the scent.