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Have you ever been on an airplane, with everyone inhaling each other’s exhales, poor air circulation, ever-present body odor, and cramped leg room? The list could undoubtedly go on. But, the point is, a warm soothing cup of tea or coffee in the midst of this mid-air disaster is a saving grace for many flyers. However, recent reports from flight attendants themselves may change your mind.

The Reason Why Cabin Crew Members Refuse to Drink Airplane Water

Seeing as a tea or coffee is one of the few joys while flying, why do so many say no to this small comfort? According to one flight attendant, “[They] will not drink hot water on the plane. They will not drink plain coffee, and they will not drink plain tea.”[1]

Some may be thinking that boiling water for hot beverages would take care of contaminants. Not so fast. In October 2013, NBC reported that the airplane water flight attendants use to make tea and coffee does not come from a bottle, but rather a tap.[2] Something many people overlook is the fact that, while airborne, the water they drink isn’t coming from an original source.

So, How Dirty is Airplane Water Really?

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In 2004, the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published a news release about airplane water. Out of samples taken from 158 planes, 13 percent contained coliform. Coliforms are bacteria found in the digestive tracts of animals (including humans) as well as their human wastes. While the number is small, researchers found two of the 158 planes to contain dangerous E. coli in the water. In fact, it was reported that one out of every eight planes fail the EPA’s water safety standards.[1,3,4]

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The EPA actually regulates water onboard and ensures safe drinking water on planes, something the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA) fought for in the early 2000s. However, the AFA believes the regulations are not strict enough let alone sufficiently enforced. In fact, “the regulation gives broad discretion to airlines on how often they must test the water and flush the tanks,”[1] which is likely why cabin crews still refuse to drink the water they serve.

Transit: The Reason Why Airplane Water is Undrinkable

As we mentioned earlier, the water people drink on aircrafts is not coming from a particularly clean source. As NBC reported, the potentially harmful bacteria probably contaminate the water while it’s in transit.[5]

One 2015 study to back this up was published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. In it, researchers state that there are more microorganisms that exist within transport vehicles than inside the water’s original source.[6] When we think of the water people drink and use on aircrafts (i.e., water that’s transferred from truck to plane), it becomes quite clear why flight attendants self-impose this anti-plane water law.

If Flight Attendants Won’t Drink Airplane Water, Should I?

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According to Dr. Cedric Spak, a Baylor University infectious disease specialist, a healthy immune system can handle some bacteria and that no tap water is sterile [5]. After all, staying hydrated on a flight is far more important for overall health than avoiding water altogether on a flight.

But Spak specifically warns anyone with a compromised immune system as well as infants to steer clear of the in-flight beverage.[5]

Alternatives to Drinking Tap Water on Aircrafts

It may be tough avoiding it altogether, depending on the length of your flight. But here are some options you can work with:[7,8]

  1. Most airports allow you to purchase water near the departure gate; grab a large bottle of  mineral water before boarding your flight
  2. Assuming it’s coming from a bottle or can, 100% pure tomato juice is high in vitamin C, keeps your electrolytes up, and is high in antioxidants
  3. Pack sealed water-heavy fruits and vegetables into your carry-on baggage – it could either liquid, gel-based, or whole

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