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How Sanitary Are Airline Blankets and Pillows?

airline blanket, airline pillow
Whether you get a complimentary blanket and pillow on a flight largely depends on which airline you're flying. But how sanitary are they when you do get them? Thinkstock/Getty Images

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If you poke around the internet, you may have seen a few warnings about the potential health risk of using blankets and pillows provided by airlines on flights.

But like a lot of other stuff you see online, those cautionaries seem a little overblown. For one thing, in an era of increasingly intense price competition and pressure to control costs, many airlines no longer even provide complimentary pillows and blankets to all their passengers. Others still provide them on a limited basis, as upscale amenities for passengers in premium seats. And several airlines that do provide pillows and blankets also reuse them. But reps from those airlines told us that the items are laundered and repackaged between uses to eliminate any health concerns.

As this 2010 Atlanta Journal-Constitution article describes, many air carriers started reducing or eliminating complimentary bedding years ago. Southwest Airlines, for example, stopped providing blankets and pillows back in 2009. "It was sanitation-related," Southwest spokesperson Dan Landson explains in an email. The airline is "doing what we can to prevent the spread of illnesses."

"As an Ultra Low Cost Carrier (ULCC), this is not a part of our business model," explains Frontier Airlines spokesperson Kelsy Hustead in an email. "We do not have blankets and pillows."

One major carrier that still offers complimentary blankets in all its cabins is Delta Airlines, though it doesn't hand out pillows to everybody.

"We offer pillows in our Delta One, Delta Premium Select, and First Class cabins on all flights, and in Delta Comfort+ and Main Cabin on international flights," spokesperson Savannah Huddleston details in an email. "Offerings vary according to the cabin and length of flight. For instance, in Delta One — our business class cabin offering on international routes and select domestic long-haul flights — we provide Westin Heavenly In-Flight Bedding to customers, which includes an oversized duvet and down-alternative pillow. In other cabins, our high-quality pillows and blue blankets are designed with durable, long-lasting materials." Linen pillow cases and blankets are laundered after each use.

Other carriers are offering blankets and pillows as luxury amenities as well. American Airlines, for example, provides Casper brand blankets and pillows — along with an assortment of sleep items, such as quilted duvets, pajamas and slippers — for first and business class passengers on long-haul international flights.

"We worked closely with Casper's sleep engineers to design our bedding," American Airlines spokesperson Sunny Rodriguez explains.

Economy-class passengers also get non-designer blankets and pillows on those trips. On domestic flights, first class passengers get a lighter non-designer blanket, according to Rodriguez.

"We decide on the strategy based on customer needs that typically tie to the length of the trip," Rodriguez says. "We wouldn't consider providing these products to every customer every flight, not necessarily due to cost, but due to waste. We want to provide a meaningful customer experience that meets the customer's needs."

Both American's premium designer products and the non-branded blankets and pillows are reused, but only after they're shipped off to be laundered by an outside company, which then repackages them before they are returned to be distributed to other passengers, Rodriguez explains.

"When the products arrive on board, they're wrapped in plastic," Rodriguez says. "That's a sign that they're cleaned and fresh. If they're opened, they're laundered, even if they weren't actually used."

Last year, travel website Skift and Fox News reported that airlines have had passengers walk off with their high-end pillows and blankets. "It's not an issue we have today," Rodriguez says, explaining that the novelty of the items has most likely worn off.

JetBlue, another carrier, offers customers flying in its Core seats — the equivalent of coach/economy — a chance to purchase new neck pillows for $6 and blankets for $5. "This approach allows us to provide our customers with a high-quality product that is reusable," spokesperson Julianna Bryan explains in an email. "As an airline that cares deeply about sustainability, we strongly encourage our customers to keep their neck pillows and blankets for future use."

The airline's premium Mint class passengers, though, get custom-made pillows and blankets that are collected and laundered freshly between uses, according to Bryan.

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