Have you ever wondered what airlines do with those lightweight blankets, masks and earplugs they hand out to you, or if you’re reusing somebody else’s previously sneezed-upon blankie? Aviation journalist John Walton explains.

Travel News - girl (2-3) sleeping in airplane seat
After use, airlines will most often send blankets off to be washed © Getty

What happens to the used blankets on a flight? 

Most people don’t want to use a dirty blanket, but surely airlines don’t throw them away…right?  Well, good news: in the vast majority of cases, they’re washed, reused, recycled and, in some cases, even made of recycled materials, so you can snuggle up in one with a clear environmental conscience.

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While an increasing number of business class and even premium economy cabins are seeing luxury linens from brands like Saks Fifth Avenue or the Westin hotel chain, in economy you’re likely to find a fleece artificial fibre sort of blanket, if at all.

Packing a blanket is still not a bad idea 

Airlines often don’t load enough blankets for everyone, and low-cost carriers sometimes don’t offer them, which is why you see folks packing their own. Lightweight but warm travel blankets are available on the market, but a sweater or cardigan and a spare pair of socks might be just as useful. Layering is usually the most effective way to stay warm on those increasingly rare flights where it’s too cold rather than too warm, and tying the arms of a jumper around your neck can also make for a pillow in a pinch.

A man wearing a sleep mask sleeps with his head back on a flight.
Packing your own blanket for sleep might not be a bad idea © SolStock / Getty Images

Do some airlines reuse blankets? 

On board, if you’re a germophobe — or even if you’re not — you’ll want to check that the blanket is wrapped before you use it. Airline procedures sometimes mean that crews end up folding previously used blankets up and passing them out, which could be a recipe for getting someone else’s cold.

After use, airlines will most often send blankets off to be washed at an industrial facility (whether it’s one they operate themselves or via a laundry service), but for some carriers this only happens at their home base airports, so used blankets are either stuffed in the overhead bins or folded back up.

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Sleep masks and earplugs, though, are single-use items for airlines, so if you’re an environmentally conscious sort of person you might want to invest in reusable ones, which also come with the benefit of being a little higher quality. Alternatively, be inspired by Hollywood and go the celebrity sunglasses route: pop a big pair of sunnies on before you start to snooze and you’re less likely to be disturbed by the light.

John Walton is an international aviation journalist, follow him @thatjohn

This article was first published May 2018 and updated November 2019

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