Airliner Water: Is It Safe?

Tap Water

Mama always told me a traveler needs a compliant GI system. Of course that was back when there were porters and not hijackers. Now comes one of those headlines that grab you by the throat: Why Airline Crews Skip The Coffee And Tea On Board.

I’m thinking for the same reason I do. I don’t want to bash my  knees and disturb my seatmates by going to the restroom. But it turns out airline crews don’t trust the water. And they ought to know.

NBC reports that documents they obtained suggest “the problem of bacteria in the drinking water persists on a high percentage of airline flights.” This comes after years of trying to clean up the onboard water.

Over at Forbes.com, writer John Goglia tells us that thirty years ago when he was “working for USAir, we began a process to bleach the water tanks that hold the water and flush out the system. This was done on a regular basis. Yet, it was clear to anyone working on these tanks and their hoses that a lot of sediment was accumulating in the system, sediment that was akin to pond scum. Even after the tanks were bleached and flushed, some sediment always remained. It’s hard to drink anything made with water from those tanks after seeing what accumulates in there.”

Gulp.

Water. About the only free item left for passengers and it turns out it’s bad for us.

The EPA first questioned the purity of airliner water in 2004. Fifteen percent of 327 aircraft tested positive for “total coliform” (an indicator that other disease-causing organisms such as fecal coliform or E. coli. might be in the water – sort of like the difference between erotic and pornographic).

Coliform. Like love, its power comes from being shared.

So The Wall Street Journal sent reporters on 14 flights to collect vials of water from galley and lavatory taps. They found details so extraordinary it seemed likely to be true:

“A long list of microscopic life you don’t want to drink, from Salmonella and Staphylococcus to tiny insect eggs. Worse, contamination was the rule, not the exception: Almost all of the bacteria levels were tens, sometimes hundreds, of times above U.S. government limits.”

“This water is not potable by any means,” the director of Hoosier Microbiology Laboratories in Muncie, Ind., which tested theWSJ samples, told the reporters.

In 2009, the EPA published the Airline Drinking Water Rule to “ensure that safe and reliable drinking water is provided to airline passengers and crew.”

EPA regulations say airlines must test every aircraft once a year for coliform and E. coli. A negative test means the tanks must be flushed and water retested.

But this week, NBC says EPA data obtained last year shows “12 percent of commercial airplanes in the U.S. had at least one positive test for coliform.”

Most airlines serve bottled water. But most likely the water used to make coffee and tea comes from onboard tanks, which get filled from hoses at airports around the world. Tap water from the Third World? Hoses on the tarmac? Not exactly comfort to our inner flyer.

Experts say only disinfection will kill bacteria, heating the coffee usually isn’t enough. “It might kill some of the organisms, the more susceptible ones, but it’s not going to kill the majority of them,” said one water-testing lab manager.

The Tarmac’s View: I’ll have a Diet Coke and the peanuts, please. Nobody wants the food chain working perfectly in drinking water. I’ll pass unless I see it poured from a bottle. And I’m giving up coffee and tea prepared from airliner tap water. Why can airlines haul 400 passengers hallway around the world in a single leap but not figure out a way to keep the water pure?

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Comments (Showing 6 of 6)

  • crzn at 4:46pm October 16, 2013

    What about the ice?

  • chitownjeff at 6:12pm October 16, 2013

    What about that ice that’s in your Coke?

  • Brian Cohen at 7:26pm October 16, 2013

    Hello, Gerry –

    I hope you do not mind, but here is a link to a similar story posted at The Gate, which includes a link to a study conducted by FlyerTalk member T-wiz – the son of FlyerTalk member l’etoile – who investigated for a school project the safety and quality of water aboard airlines which was published by The Wall Street Journal back in 2002:

    http://www.flyertalk.com/the-gate/blog/13608-think-twice-before-ordering-coffee-aboard-an-airplane.html

  • FAA1996 at 8:38pm October 16, 2013

    Sensationalist article. Every plane I’ve been on has signs in the lavatories informing passengers not to drink the water. Unless the water used for coffee and tea doesn’t reach the correct temperature for the correct amount if time this is a non-issue.

  • AADC10 at 12:25am October 17, 2013

    I find it difficult to believe that the coffee maker does not heat the water sufficiently to kill off bacteria in the water. How many people have fallen ill from drinking airplane coffee? Aircraft coffee makers have systems to get the water up to temperature to compensate for the lower atmospheric pressure. Much of the bad taste probably comes from mineral build up in the boilers, not from bacteria.

    It used to be that aircraft had water and cup dispensers that passengers could use and the water came from the holding tanks but I have not seen one in decades. Since aircraft spend less time on the ground now, the water tanks are probably cleaned less often.

  • IanFromHKG at 5:27am October 17, 2013

    It’s not just the liquid water, it’s the frozen stuff too. I travel regularly to India and always followed all the rules – no salads, no ice in drinks, make sure bottled water is opened in front of me (to ensure the seal wasn’t broken and the bottle refilled), bottled water for brushing teeth, the full monty. And yet each time, shortly after getting home, I would be catastrophically ill. I eventually worked it out – the airline loaded ice in India, clearly made with tap water, but of course as soon as I got on the plane I relaxed (because I wasn’t in India any more) and would have ice in drinks. Not any more – champagne and wine only!!!

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