Seriously Though, Water Served on Planes Isn’t Fit to Wash Your Hands With

Study finds water on board American planes is not safe to drink or wash your hands with 8 photos
Photo: / Brian Cohen
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Sometime in September 2019, frequent fliers found another pet peeve to make their travels more difficult and stress-inducing, thanks to a viral video in which an experienced flight attendant was telling them to never drink the water served on a plane.
That included ordering coffee or tea. The water stored in a plane’s tanks, she said, could be contaminated because airlines were obligated to clean the tanks and the hoses about 4 times a year, and they never made any extra efforts in this sense. She said not one of her colleagues would be caught dead next to a glass of water or a steaming cup of tea or coffee.

Because the video was spreading panic, a spokesperson for Airlines for America (A4A) issued a statement to rubbish it. The water on board any plane flying in the United States was good to drink, because carriers worked closely with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to make sure it met certain quality standards. The water was just as good as what was served in restaurants, airport coffee shops or even people’s own home, A4A further said.

Well, guess what? Apparently, the water on board American planes really isn’t that good to drink. In fact, it’s of such poor quality that it would be best if you never even washed your hands with it after using the restroom on board. You can thank the carriers and EPA for that.

Study finds tainted water on board most American carriers’ planes

Each year, the Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center ranks the food served on board American airlines. This year, it teamed up with and took a closer looked at the water served on 11 major airlines and 12 regional ones, and the conclusions were published in September in the 2019 Airline Water Study.

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Photo: Vueling
It turns out that the water on board the planes really is as bad as that viral video alleged. In fact, Charles Platkin, PhD, JD, MPH, the editor of and the executive director of the Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center, says that the water is so bad he wouldn’t even recommend it for washing your hands after you visit the restroom. Imagine that.

For the study, which ranked the airlines for quality of their water on a scale from 0 to 5 (5 being the highest quality), researchers also included considerations as Aircraft Drinking Water Rule (ADWR) violations, positive E.coli and coliform water sample reports, size of fleet of the carrier, and openness to communication with the public on the issue of ADWR.

Not one of the carriers included in the study ranked a pure 5. In fact, not one scored a poorer 4: the highest score was of 3.3 (out of 5), which went to Alaska Airlines and Allegiant. Hawaiian Airlines came in second with 3.1. At the opposite pole were ExpressJet with a score of 0.56 and Republic Airways with 0.44.

The issue is not just with carriers, the study says: the biggest problem seems to be with EPA itself, which rarely bothers to issue fines to carriers when they self-report infections with E. coli or coliform, or to ask for follow-ups. ADWR was introduced in 2011 and is meant to ensure that safe and reliable drinking water is available to all on board a plane, be they passengers or cabin crew. EPA regulates ADWR violations, at least in theory.

Except that it doesn’t, the study says.

Because of this, the study concludes that, for their own sake, passengers should avoid coming into any sort of contact with the water on board a plane. That means a hard pass to offerings of tea or coffee (complimentary or not), and even avoiding washing their hands after they use the restroom. A wet wipe or hand sanitizer are safer options, apparently.

Cabin crew uniforms for Delta Airlines, U\.S\.
Photo: Delta
“I’m not saying every airline has tainted E.coli water, they don’t, but I certainly wouldn’t want to wash my hands with potentially [tainted water],” Platkin says of the findings.

Don’t panic, it’s not really that bad

However, other scientists have better suggestions. It’s always best to drink bottled water when you’re flying, but not washing your hands is never a good idea – unless actual “pond scum” pours out of the faucet. Because the study doesn’t reveal what the bacterial load is, there’s no way of telling how dangerous the water on board planes is, but the benefits of washing most likely surpass the risks.

Dr. William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University and an infectious diseases expert, tells AFAR that you should always use soap when you wash your hands, and make sure you scrub your palms together vigorously. Dry your hands on the paper towel also with vigorous motions, and the friction will kill off bacteria.

Then, if you’re still uncertain, use hand sanitizer: opt for an alcohol-based formula and make sure you rub your hands together until they’re dry. Then, make sure you touch as few things on board as you.

Safe flights, everyone!
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About the author: Elena Gorgan
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Elena has been writing for a living since 2006 and, as a journalist, she has put her double major in English and Spanish to good use. She covers automotive and mobility topics like cars and bicycles, and she always knows the shows worth watching on Netflix and friends.
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