A few years ago, Emirates airline used the hot towel as a satirical benchmark of luxury on other airlines. In a tongue-in-cheek advert starring Jennifer Aniston, Emirates depicted the bewildered-looking Friends actress searching for the shower and lounge on board an unidentified airline, only to be told that these don't exist on non-Emirates flights. She was offered a consolatory hot towel and a bag of peanuts instead.
Today, even getting that might be a push. That's because airlines are reinventing their services to become (or at least be seen as becoming) more sustainable. The rising trend of flight-shaming – a social movement that depicts air travel as a serious faux pas – has forced airlines to introduce new measures to reduce weight and waste. This week, Scandinavian Airlines announced it was ditching hot towels on its short-haul business-class flights as part of its new sustainability efforts.
Given that many airlines use hot towels that are never washed or reused, simply thrown out with the rest of the cabin rubbish, and are often non-biodegradable, there's definite logic in SAS's move to get rid of them. But for me, the announcement caused a bit of head-scratching.
SAS's changes are relatively tokenistic in the grand scheme of air travel, but they are also a baby step in the right direction. What I am not convinced about is what these hot towels were actually designed for in the first place. Whenever I'm given one, I like to play it safe, using it to gingerly wipe my hands before folding it neatly on my tray table, where it waits until the crew collect it.
But I've also travelled with people who use these cloths to wipe their hands and then wash their faces. Probably the only reason I've avoided doing so was because I didn't want to wipe off all my make-up at the beginning of a flight. But this week, a make-up artist friend told me that face-wiping with these cloths is a beauty no-go.
The towels are typically heated using water from the jet's tank, which can be a breeding ground for bacteria. While boiling this water does kill off any lingering germs, the cloths are not going to be of benefit to your skin. And before you're taken in by the lingering lemon scent, chances are it comes from a couple of wedges of citrus thrown into the water by the crew, rather than from some kind of Sisley or La Mer-inspired lotion. Which means the only thing you're going to achieve by using the piping hot cloths to wipe your face is a quicker route to dehydrated skin, in what is already a dry cabin environment.
Some passengers have a totally different use for the cloths, accepting them from crew to use as cleaning aids, rigorously wiping down their "travel area" – tray table, armrests, seat back and all. I've also borne witness to passengers who seem to think that getting handed a damp cloth is an invitation to take a full-on in-flight sponge bath – using the hot towel to wipe their hands, necks, faces, ears and even armpits. And don't even get me started on the passengers who take off their shoes and socks to have a mid-flight lemon-scented foot spa.
Surely sparing even just one passenger such scenes, not to mention the cabin crew who have to dutifully retrieve the abused towels, is a good thing.
And if it helps the environment, all the better.