If you’re reading this on an airplane while sipping an in-flight coffee, you might want to put the cup down.
According to a 2019 Airline Water Study released by DietDetective.com and the Hunter College New York City Food Policy Center at the City University of New York, “many airlines have possibly provided passengers with unhealthy water.” The study, which took seven months to conduct, investigated the onboard water quality of 11 major and 12 regional airlines, then ranked them accordingly.
Alaska Airlines and Allegiant had the best water quality scores of major airlines at 3.3, while JetBlue and Spirit Airlines had the worst, tying at the bottom with water health scores of 1 on a 0-to-5 scale.
Almost all regional airlines studied earned poor water health scores, with the exception of Piedmont Airlines, which earned a 4.33. Republic Airways came in dead last with a score of 0.44.
“It was such a difficult task of trying to peel the onion for enough information on what’s available, what’s recorded,” says Charles Platkin, the editor of DietDetective.com and the executive director of the Hunter College New York City Food Policy Center.
Platkin used data from the Environmental Protection Agency and based his study on 10 criteria, such as airlines’ positive E. coli and coliform water sample reports, fleet size and violation of the federal government’s Aircraft Drinking Water Rule (ADWR).
So where does this research and information leave travelers? The major takeaways from the study were: avoid drinking coffee or tea on flights; never drink water on board that doesn’t come from a sealed bottle; and instead of washing your hands in the lavatory, use hand sanitizer.
Solving airplane water problems has been a long process. Back in 2004, the EPA found all aircraft public water systems (PWSs) to be out of compliance with the National Primary Drinking Water Regulations (NPDWRs).
“The existing NPDWRs were designed for traditional, stationary public water systems, not mobile aircraft water systems that are operationally very different,” an EPA Spokesperson told the Washington Post in an emailed statement. “To address this concern, in 2009, EPA finalized the Aircraft Drinking Water Rule (ADWR). This rule works to ensure that safe and reliable drinking water is provided to aircraft passengers and crew by amending and consolidating National Primary Drinking Water Regulations for aircraft PWSs.”
In 2011, the federal government implemented the ADWR which also required that water in the lavatory, galley faucets and drinking fountains must be safe for human consumption — meaning drinking, bathing, teeth brushing and hand washing. According to the EPA’s website, plane water regulations “include maximum allowable levels of contaminants, treatment requirements, and monitoring and reporting requirements.”
Most of the airlines studied have reported water samples that tested positive for E. coli and coliform bacteria between 2012 and 2019, which can be harmful if you’re a passenger drinking that water on a flight.
An aircraft’s water can become contaminated in a number of ways. There’s potential for contamination when water is boarded onto a flight using temporary connections (like carts, hoses, trucks, etc.), if the water system is inadequately maintained or if biofilm grows within the water system.
The 2019 Airline Water Study also found that even when the EPA does find airlines in violation of the ADWR, the agency rarely levies civil penalties for the infractions.
“The EPA needs to focus on penalties being more transparent,” Platkin says. “We see the violations; where is the list of penalties?”