Flight attendants say there is a dirty secret about the tap water on airplanes: It’s potentially contaminated.
“Flight attendants will not drink hot water on the plane. They will not drink plain coffee, and they will not drink plain tea," one flight attendant told Business Insider.
In 2004, EPA testing found that 1 in every 10 planes in the study had coliform in its water samples, an indicator of potentially harmful bacteria, the report said.
An investigation by NBC 5, relying on U.S. EPA data, found that despite federal efforts to ensure water safety on airplanes, “the water may not be much cleaner than it was when EPA conducted sample tests in 2004.”
EPA rules, per NBC 5:
The EPA now requires airlines to test for coliform and E. coli on every airplane at least once year. If a plane tests positive with either bacteria, EPA requires airplanes to flush the tanks and retest the water. The airline also has to restrict access to the water on the plane until tests show it is clean.
The Huffington Post provided background on what these rules contain and how they were formed:
In 2009, the EPA issued new safety rules for aircraft drinking water. Among other things, the new rules mandated “routine disinfection and ﬂushing of the water system [and] periodic sampling of the onboard drinking water.” It also mandated firmer policies regarding notification of passengers and crew members in the event of violations.
Yet the NBC Investigation revealed that even after the new rules hit the book, tap water on aircrafts is problematic. “In 2012, 12 percent of commercial airplanes in the U.S. had at least one positive test for coliform,” the report said.
The Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) says the rules should be stronger. The organization recently told Business Insider:
Water onboard is regulated under the Environmental Protection Agency to ensure safe drinking water on the aircraft. The Association of Flight Attendants-CWA pushed for this regulation over 15 years ago. The regulation gives broad discretion to airlines on how often they must test the water and flush the tanks. AFA does not believe this regulation goes far enough or is sufficiently enforced.
Airlines for America told the publication that airlines work closely with the federal government “to ensure that water received from municipalities for onboard systems is safe and to maintain that safety by following rigorous sampling and management requirements once received."
One San Francisco Chronicle columnist had clear-cut advice on how airline passengers should handle their drinking situation: pay for bottled water. “You might have to ante up a couple of bucks for a small bottle,” he wrote.