A study released in September found that the quality of drinking water on most American-based airlines is such that it is not even suitable for washing one’s hands, let alone drinking. Out of 11 major and 12 regional airlines, only four were deemed to have relatively safe and clean water.
The Airline Water Study, a joint endeavor by Diet Detective and the Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center, ranks the airlines, giving them a “Water Health Score” between 0 and 5, with 5 being the best score. An airline with a score of 3 or more is deemed to have water that is relatively safe and clean.
Of the major airlines in the United States, Alaska Airlines and Allegiant Airlines each scored 3.3, while Hawaiian Airlines received a score of 3.1. The only regional airline to pass standards was Maryland-based Piedmont Airlines, which scored 4.33. The major airlines with the worst scores were JetBlue and Spirit Airlines, each of which scored 1.
The Water Health Score was based on 10 different criteria, including positive E. coli and coliform water sample reports, fleet size, airline cooperation in answering water-quality questions and violations of the Aircraft Drinking Water Rule (ADWR), a federal regulation implemented in 2011 to ensure that airlines provide their flight crew and passengers with safe and reliable drinking water.
According to ADWR requirements, airlines must test samples from their water tanks for E. coli and coliform bacteria. They must also disinfect and flush each aircraft’s water tank four times per year, or once a year if monthly testing is done. However, the Environmental Protection Agency — which developed the ADWR and is one of the agencies responsible for regulating airline drinking water safety — rarely penalizes airlines for violating the ADWR.
As a result of this study, passengers are cautioned to drink only bottled water during flights (or fill up their own reusable bottle at the airport before boarding), as well as avoid ordering coffee or tea. Travelers should also include hand sanitizer when packing for a vacation, as it is inadvisable to wash your hands in the airplane bathroom, which is already among the dirtiest places on an airplane.