How Do They Clean Those Airplane Blankets, Really?

Pillows, blankets, seats, bathrooms, dishes, and trays—how the heck are airplanes cleaned? And how often?

Four people in orange vests cleaning overhead bins on a plane

There are no government rules about cleaning requirements or schedules.

Courtesy of Unifi Aviation

You fought your way through midmorning traffic, waited in the airport security line just long enough to trigger a mild panic attack, and was TSA-splained to about why peanut butter is considered a liquid. All of which makes the thought of boarding your flight, buckling into your assigned seat, hitting (or not hitting) that recline button, and tucking into a Bloody Mary seem like a vacation unto itself. Until you stop to think about how many other passengers have sat in that same seat and hit that very recline button.

In a postpandemic world, cleanliness is the new legroom. Yet when it comes to cleaning the interior of an airplane cabin and its various—and germy—components, there are surprisingly no federal regulations mandating how or how often this should be done. The CDC offers some general guidelines for cabin crew members, but there is no government entity that oversees or enforces any sort of minimum cleaning schedule.

“The FAA does have an Aviation Maintenance Handbook that includes guidance and the importance of cabin cleaning,” says Josh Kennedy, senior vice president of operations for Unifi, an aviation services company that offers everything from baggage handling to cabin cleaning. “But each airline and aircraft have different, unique needs and procedures.” Kennedy knows what he’s talking about: He got his own start in the airline industry working as a cabin cleaner—aka the person who makes sure to get rid of that trail of crumbs from your row to the exit door.

Just because there’s no industry-wide baseline for cleanliness, however, doesn’t mean each airline doesn’t have its own. Nor does the lack of an industry standard mean that no one is watching. Since 1999, U.K.-based airline industry consultancy Skytrax has been interviewing travelers, crunching the numbers, and digging up the literal dirt to unveil an annual list of the World’s Cleanest Airlines (among other World Airline Awards). While no U.S.-based airline managed to crack the latest top 20, according to Skytrax’s criteria, you’re in the best (read: cleanest) hands if you’re flying JetBlue, which was named the Cleanest Airline in North America 2023. The worldwide #1 spot is held by All Nippon Airways (ANA).

A spokesperson for ANA confirmed that an external company handles their cleaning operations for both domestic and international flights and that the cabin is cleaned between every flight, domestic or international. In addition, the flight crew keeps an eye on things during each trip. (You can watch the team in action.)

As with so many other aspects of air travel, you often get what you pay for. Whereas larger airlines often hire dedicated cabin cleaners to tackle the aircraft between guests, “Generally on low-cost carriers, the flight attendants will have to clean the planes themselves,” says Catrina McGrail, a former flight attendant and creator of the 24 Hours Layover travel blog. Regardless of who is doing the cleaning, it’s always a delicate dance of speed and coordination.

“The allocated time to clean is extremely tight, so staff have to be extremely efficient and quick,” says McGrail. “The whole seat area—including [the] tray table, seat pocket, and under the seat—needs to be cleaned thoroughly, as well as toilets, aisles, and galleys. Often staff are given only around 10 minutes to clean the whole plane!” At the same time this is happening, used linens (blankets and pillows) and catering items (plates, silverware, etc.) are being offloaded to make room for fresh items, which are cleaned on the ground.

Some key factors that determine how much time a crew has to clean, according to McGrail, are the type and size of the plane (i.e., narrow-body vs. wide-body), the destination (long-haul flights are generally on the ground for at least 90 minutes, giving the crew more time to disinfect the cabin), and whether the plane was delayed (“in which case the staff are expected to clean in less time so as to minimize any subsequent delays,” McGrail explains).

Here’s how the airlines handle the cleaning of various areas of the plane.

Seats and seating areas

For most travelers, your assigned seat is where you’ll spend the vast majority of any flight. Whether you choose to nap, read, binge-watch Breaking Bad (again), or chat up your seatmate for the duration of your trip, the simple act of sitting down and buckling yourself in requires that you interact with several components of a plane’s seating area, including the seat belt, armrest, seat-back pocket, and tray table. As such, these areas can become some of the grimiest parts on a plane and require special attention between passengers—even more so in a post-COVID world.

Unifi, which operates in more than 200 airports around the world, hires and manages the cabin cleaning staff for some of the biggest U.S. airlines, including Delta, United, Spirit, and Alaska. “Postpandemic, we do a more detailed cleaning than in the past,” says Kennedy, who notes that prior to 2020, “Sanitizing all the touchpoints wasn’t standard at every turn. Touchpoints include the tray tables, armrests, window shades, air vents, reading light switches, flight attendant call buttons, and the handles on overhead bins. Those are all wiped down and sanitized. These were always cleaned daily in the past, but now it’s done at every turn.”


Depending on which type of aircraft you’re traveling aboard, a plane might have anywhere from 1 to 15 bathrooms on board—with anywhere from 15 to 80 passengers sharing the same lavatory. Amazingly, that doesn’t necessarily make it the grossest place on the plane (your tray table has been known to pose a greater risk to your health). But given the kind of business that’s generally going down in there, it’s not a space where you’ll want to linger—unless you’re a cabin cleaner. The bathrooms get a lot of attention during a turnaround clean. “All lavatories are cleaned with disinfectant; the trash is emptied and supplies replenished,” says Kennedy.

Blankets and pillows

If you’re worried that someone may have just used the same blanket or pillow you’re being offered on a flight, follow McGrail’s tip for determining cleanliness: Make sure it’s wrapped in plastic. Typically, the airline contracts with a separate cleaner who will remove all linens at each stop. In McGrail’s experience, “Used blankets would be taken off the plane and washed on ground after every flight in a boiling hot wash, then placed inside individually sealed plastic bags ready for the next flight. Using the sealed plastic bags means passengers would know their blanket would be fresh.” All pillows and headrest covers should be changed out, too, she says. “I can’t speak for all airlines, but I never came across any time when blankets would be reused. I think it is extremely unlikely in any airline.”

Cups, plates, and cutlery

As with linens, airlines have a specific team or catering company to handle the cleaning of all dishes, cups, cutlery, and other food-related items. “All dishes, cutlery, and trays are taken off board to be washed in industrial dishwashers on the ground,” says McGrail. “Replacement cutlery would then be placed onboard in individually sealed plastic, so passengers would know they are fresh. So the cutlery/plates used by passengers on the previous flight will never be used on the subsequent flight as the catering staff on the ground need time to clean and package it for a future flight.”

Regardless of who’s doing the cleaning, Kennedy says that “because cabin cleaning is behind-the-scenes, it’s often a thankless job that doesn’t get the recognition it deserves publicly. But it is a tough, physically demanding job. Passengers may not think about cabin cleaning on their journey, but I promise if the flights weren’t cleaned properly, it would be the first thing they notice.”

What can you, as a traveler, do to help the team that cleans up behind you? When the flight attendants make that final trip down the aisle asking for trash before you land, hand yours over. “And tidy your seat area,” suggests Kennedy. “Also, double-check those seat pockets to ensure you didn’t leave anything behind when you are getting ready to exit the plane.”

One of the best tips for travelers, according to epidemiologists, infectious disease doctors, and air-filtration experts who spoke to the New York Times in late 2022, is simply to wear a face mask. Dr. Saskia Popescu, an infectious disease epidemiologist, called masking “the best tool we have to prevent the spread of those surging respiratory viruses, from COVID to influenza to RSV.”

For passengers who want to be extra vigilant, plan ahead before boarding your next flight: Bring wipes to disinfect all hard, nonporous surfaces like the TV screen and remote, tray table, and seat belt buckle. If you want to take your hygiene routine one step further, purchase a disposable airplane seat cover and travel table cover too (just don’t be surprised if you get a few puzzled looks from your fellow passengers).

Jennifer M. Wood writes about entertainment, culture, travel, politics, food, art. She is also the managing editor at Mental Floss.
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