Today I was looking up chicken-pox parties (ugh!) and I noticed a headline on the People magazine website about unsafe drinking water on US airlines. This study is a little scary but I thought it was worth a mention because there are a few simple steps air travelers can take to keep from getting sick from water on planes. (Plus, we’ll throw in some Airplane! gifs to lighten the mood.)
(To avoid confusion – this study is in reference to the water from the plane’s on-board tanks, used for brewing coffee and tea and in the restrooms for hand washing. It doesn’t cover sealed bottled water brought on to the plane.)
From People: “The 2019 Airline Water Study conducted by DietDetective.com and the Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center investigated 11 major airlines and 12 regional airlines, scoring them from 0 to 5 (5 being the best) on the quality of water they provide onboard.
“The scores were based on 10 criteria, including airline fleet size; the presence of coliform bacteria or E. coli in the water; and the amount of times they’ve violated the federal government’s Aircraft Drinking Water Rule (ADWR), which was implemented in 2011 and requires airlines to provide safe drinking water to all passengers and staff.”
A little microbiology refresher: testing for coliform bacteria is important because coliforms are considered “indicator” organisms for disease-causing bacteria in drinking water. There are many microbes that can cause human disease, and some don’t have to be present in large numbers to make people sick. Testing for each individual microbe would be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming. Coliforms are easy to detect and if they’re present the next step is testing for the specific microbe E. coli. If it’s positive, the water is unsafe.
In the airline water testing, scores of 3 or higher suggest the water on board is safe for drinking. Only three of the 11 major airlines sampled achieved this score, along with just one of the 12 regional airlines.
Detailed airline results are here along with observations on the cooperativeness of the airline personnel and follow-up actions, if any. I summarized the scores in the next paragraph, and the bottom-line advice from the investigators is:
- Don’t drink coffee or tea brewed on the aircraft;
- Drink beverages only from sealed bottles;
- Don’t wash your hands or brush your teeth in the aircraft bathroom; skip the toothbrush and use hand sanitizer until you land.
The major airlines receiving the highest water health score (and the only passing scores) were Allegiant and Alaska – each with a score of 3.3 on a 0-to-5 scale. Hawaiian Airlines was a close second at 3.1. Piedmont Airlines, which operates American Eagle flights, was the highest-rated regional carrier with a score of 4.33.
Everyone else failed. Among major airlines, Spirit and JetBlue tied for the lowest score of 1 on a 0-to-5 scale. Nearly all regional airlines, except Piedmont, have poor Water Health Scores and a large number of ADWR violations. Republic Airways (which flies for United Express, Delta Connection and American Eagle) has the lowest score at 0.44 on a 0-to-5 scale and ExpressJet is second-lowest at 0.56. ExpressJet averages 3.36 ADWR violations per aircraft.
This next bit sounded like good news at first but there’s a qualifier: the number of violations by all airlines decreased by about 70% from 2012 (first year of the act) to 2018. However, the decrease might reflect a lack of enforcement by the EPA, which has issued few penalties in recent years.
The investigators gave the “Shame on You” Award to the EPA and nearly all major airlines (regional airlines weren’t contacted) for their very poor response time and lack of cooperation answering detailed questions.
The EPA didn’t answer most penalty-related questions, and Spirit, Allegiant and Frontier did not respond to any questions. Very weak responses – and responses that didn’t address questions – were provided by American, United, and JetBlue, which had a large number of violations during the past seven years.
(As an aside for those interested, one of my questions while reading these articles was that I’d assumed airplane water comes from municipal supplies at airports, but it’s a little more complicated with multiple regulatory agency oversight and a number of opportunities for contamination en route to the plane. This EPA training guide has some info on water sources starting on page 16.)