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It Rains, It Pours

By Cindy Skrzycki
Tuesday, April 22, 2008

As if U.S. airlines don't have enough to worry about, with rising fuel prices, mergers and bankruptcies, a safety-inspection crackdown and countless disgruntled customers. Now along comes a federal requirement to upgrade the drinking water on planes.

The Environmental Protection Agency issued a 29-page proposal April 9 to make the nation's airlines follow a schedule for sampling water used in galleys and restrooms, as well as for keeping records, notifying the public of problems and taking corrective action. The aim is to limit the level of bacteria, such as coliform, in the water.

Coliform germs, though not harmful in themselves, can signal the presence of serious pathogens such as E. coli. The EPA and the airlines said there is no documented evidence of anyone becoming sick from airline drinking water. Still, regulators say the water has to meet federal mandates.

"We're upgrading airline drinking-water standards to first-class status with better testing, treatment and maintenance," Benjamin Grumbles, EPA assistant administrator for water, said when the proposal was issued.

The EPA estimates 63 air carriers and 7,307 public water systems serving 708 million passengers a year would be affected. The total annual cost to comply would be about $8 million, or about 1 cent per ticket, the agency said.

Nancy Young, vice president of environmental affairs at the Air Transport Association, which represents U.S. carriers, said the trade group started testing aircraft water under EPA supervision in 2003.

"We were well within testing ranges of any municipal drinking water supply system," Young said. The airlines stress that the water is as safe as the supplies from which it is drawn.

Not everyone thinks the government plan is strong enough. A safety official at the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents 55,000 flight attendants at 20 airlines, said the airlines would be given too much freedom to inspect themselves and that notification procedures are slow and not retroactive.

"We are a little concerned," said Dinkar Mokadam, a safety specialist with the union, based in Washington. "I don't think carriers can be relied upon to do self-audits, especially in this economic climate."

Flight attendants have had many cases of unreported gastrointestinal problems that may have come from washing their hands or drinking the water onboard, Mokadam said.

The problem might never have come to light if a 13-year-old California student hadn't done a science project that found seven water samples collected on nine flights contaminated by E. coli, fecal coliform or salmonella.

The Wall Street Journal picked up on those findings, did its own testing and published a story in 2002 that led the EPA and air carriers to put together a task force.

After the Air Transport Association conducted tests, the EPA ran its own samples from 327 aircraft and found 15 percent tested positive for coliform bacteria.

Regulators who implement the national primary drinking water rules had to tailor any proposal to a mobile water source, where quick turnaround times between flights and refills from multiple sources are the norm.

"We found there wasn't very good compliance" with the maintenance airlines were supposed to be doing, said Rick Naylor, the EPA's manager for the drinking water rule. "The idea was to keep their tanks clean."

So the agency entered into legally binding agreements with 45 of the airlines. The carriers agreed to follow a protocol to clean and test water supplies and notify the agency of the results.

In the current rulemaking, the EPA said preliminary sampling of drinking water from 15 airlines showed improvement. The flight attendants said that means some airlines haven't begun water testing yet. Others want the agency to treat the results as confidential business information.

The proposal says the more times a carrier disinfects and flushes its airborne water tanks, the fewer times it has to conduct tests.

Air carriers had varied responses to the EPA proposal. Caroline Boren, a spokeswoman for Alaska Airlines, based in Seattle, said the carrier sanitizes its potable water tanks every 90 days and has never had a problem using the water to make coffee or for hand washing.

Marilee McInnis, a spokeswoman for Southwest Airlines, the nation's largest low-fare carrier, said the Dallas company uses "purified" water to make coffee or tea. Spokesman Tim Wagner, of American Airlines, the world's largest air carrier, referred questions to the Air Transport Association.

There's no health problem for short-hop carriers because there often isn't time to serve water or brush your teeth, said Roger Cohen, president of the Regional Airline Association in Washington. Members of the trade group fly half the nation's scheduled daily flights.

"I've been in the airline business for 35 years, and I haven't given it a second thought," Cohen said of the issue precipitating the new rule. At home, he added, he drinks only bottled water.

Cindy Skrzycki is a regulatory columnist at Bloomberg News. She can be reached atcskrzycki@bloomberg.net

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