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New Airline Study: “Don’t Even Wash Your Hands in the Bathroom”

New Airline Study: “Don’t Even Wash Your Hands in the Bathroom”
Jeff Edwards

A new report from the Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center and DietDetective.com has revealed some uncomfortable information about the drinking water provided by commercial airlines. The “Airline Water Study 2019” may have health-conscious passengers packing a canteen or opting for a sealed container on their next flight.

By now, most frequent flyers know better than to drink the coffee on commercial flights, but a new report from Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center and DietDetectives.com indicates the safety of the onboard drinking water might be even worse than we knew. The study finds that onboard water quality varies dramatically from carrier to carrier and “many airlines have provided passengers with unhealthy water.”

According to the just-released “Airline Water Study 2019,” Alaska Airlines and Allegiant Airlines have the safest onboard drinking water of major U.S. carriers. The report didn’t offer all positive news about Alaska, however; in addition to noting that the airline was “not helpful” in cooperating with the water investigation, there were also more serious safety concerns addressed as well.

“While Alaska Airlines has a very low number of violations per aircraft, and received the highest water score. The airline has several unrecorded violations for its failure to collect repeat or follow-up samples of a coliform-positive result,” the report’s authors admonished.

The study ranked airline water quality on a five-point scale based on reported federal Aircraft Drinking Water Rule (ADWR) violations per aircraft and specific instances of positive E. coli or coliform water sample reports, among other factors. Any ranking of 3 points or more indicates that an airline “has relatively safe, clean water.” Alaska and Allegiant had industry-leading scores of 3.3 points each and Hawaiian Airlines trailed closely with a score of 3.1. All other major carriers fell below the 3-point threshold for safe drinking water.

Legacy carriers American Airlines, United Airlines, and Delta Air Lines earned scores of less than 2 points. Southwest Airlines and Frontier Airlines fared slightly better with scores above two points. Meanwhile, JetBlue and Spirit Airlines managed only 1-point ratings.

As a whole, major carriers performed much better than regional carriers. With the exception of Piedmont Airlines, which earned the top score of 4.33, no regional airlines scored above the critical 3-point threshold. Republic Airways had an airline industry worst score of .44, which was attributed, in part, to no less than 6 E. Coli and 125 Coliform violations over the seven-year study period.

Although the study was not optimistic about the airlines’ appetite for improving water quality or government regulators’ interest in enforcing existing rules, the researchers did offer some practical advice on how passengers might help to keep themselves safe from waterborne illnesses when traveling by air.

“NEVER drink any water on board that isn’t in a sealed bottle,” the authors cautioned. “Do not drink coffee or tea on board. Do not wash your hands in the bathroom; bring hand-sanitizer with you instead.”

View Comments (16)

16 Comments

  1. jonsail

    September 16, 2019 at 5:41 pm

    i drink airline coffee all the time and have never had a problem.

  2. edge

    September 17, 2019 at 7:18 am

    Plenty of people drink the coffee, including the flight crew. I am wondering if the brewing process kills the bad bacteria? E coli gets killed at 160 degrees and I am guessing the brewing process heats the water past that.

  3. htb

    September 17, 2019 at 11:01 pm

    Water boils at 100 degrees, and even at lower temperatures at lower pressures. I doubt you’ll reach 160 needed to kill E coli.
    Units, anyone?!

  4. AJNEDC

    September 18, 2019 at 5:29 am

    Does any airline provide drinking water that is not poured from a bottle? I’ve never seen that.

  5. snidely

    September 18, 2019 at 5:43 am

    Don’t most airlines dispense drinking water in sealed bottles?

  6. Danwriter

    September 18, 2019 at 6:27 am

    “By now, most frequent flyers know better than to drink the coffee on commercial flights…”

    Sez who? Do you just make this stuff up?

  7. pmiranda

    September 18, 2019 at 6:31 am

    Is this the water from the tap in the lav, or the water they specifically serve for drinking?
    I was on a Asiana flight recently where the lav tap was not working and they left a 1L bottle of water for people to use. I’m guessing that’s not really a good idea!

  8. flpab

    flpab

    September 18, 2019 at 7:32 am

    You have to buy the water on Allegiant and it is in a bottle.

  9. IEFBR14

    September 18, 2019 at 8:00 am

    i would think that after visiting the restroom, washing with on-board water is still
    better than not washing at all. maybe too many people are following the article’s advice and therefore lacing all seating areas, tray tables, and armrests with E-coli.

    wash first, then follow up with sanitizer might be the best solution.

  10. Loren Pechtel

    September 18, 2019 at 9:05 am

    I would think the boiled drinks would be safe regardless of the water quality. It does sound like they need to crack down on this, though.

  11. Long Zhiren

    September 18, 2019 at 9:39 am

    Water boils at 100 celcius, and even at lower temperatures at lower pressures. 160 Fahrenheit is needed to kill E coli. Any questions? The age old practice of boiling it or brewing it still solves most issues.

  12. MimiB22

    September 18, 2019 at 1:53 pm

    No mention of soap, which helps get rid of contaminants. I know some people just rinse after using the lav, but a good 30 second scrub with soap should get rid of most problems. I hate those little plastic water bottles… an abomination to the environment. But one must be safe. What’s the issue with coffee? I drink it on the plane and have never had a problem. But my favorite, and safest beverage if available, is a just opened can of seltzer. Aluminum is the most readily recycled, cleanest and least likely to pollute one use container. Best of all, bring your own refillable water bottle. You can fill it from a drinking fountain after going through security. Tests have shown the safest water, better than bottled, is water from a drinking fountain. Turn on the fountain, wait a moment to clear anything near the opening, then drink or fill your bottle. Just don’t put your mouth on the bubbler or spigot.

  13. tod701

    September 18, 2019 at 2:07 pm

    I design commercial aircraft water systems and personally do not drink water that has been stored in the on-board water tanks.

    They are often not pretty inside to say the least.

  14. downinit

    September 18, 2019 at 3:22 pm

    I have been to plenty of places with non-potable tap water, but I have never been advised not to wash with it. That is just completely irresponsible fear-mongering and paranoia. These hyper germaphobes are the reason we are now starting to see so many antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria and infections. A quick dab of hand sanitizer back at the seat if you plan on eating anything may be a good idea, but abstaining from washing your hands with soap and water is never a good idea. I do quite appreciate the automatic faucets found in newer planes.

  15. chrystinp

    September 18, 2019 at 8:59 pm

    I have 3 million plus miles, most of which are actual miles flown. I drink coffee/tea on board all the time and have never had a problem. Of course, that’s anecdotal, but I HATE when people make statements without sources. My favorite drink in flight is coffee with Bailey’s and two creamers.

    I don’t use hand sanitizers ever due to the fact that as a former RN I believe we should challenge our bodies for our immune systems to be effective. I am very, very rarely ill, and haven’t taken a sick day in decades when I was really sick. Again, anecdotal, but true for me. I don’t use antibacterial soaps at all, just a mechanical washing of hands for about 16 seconds. I used to do chemical, too, but once everything went antibacterial I haven’t used any of those soaps.

  16. ChinaShrek

    September 21, 2019 at 6:15 pm

    I never wash my hands (except when I take a shower), so need to worry about doing so on a plane.

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