Why Aircraft Coffee Pots Cost Thousands Of Dollars

There are many aspects of air travel that we might take for granted. On any given flight, there is a reasonable chance that passengers will be offered a hot drink such as a tea or coffee. Some airlines will make passengers pay, while others offer it as a complimentary product. Either way, the pot that it comes from is rather more expensive than one might imagine.

Aircraft contrails
It costs more than you might think to serve hot drinks at 30,000 feet. Photo: Getty Images

Expensive machines – and not just the planes!

Aircraft, and their components, have always demanded high prices. This is perhaps not something one considers when flights for $0.27 appear on the Simple Flying homepage. However, getting an aircraft airborne with the necessary furnishings is an expensive matter. Of course, this is far from a new phenomenon. The New York Times reported in 1984 that the cost of coffee machines on military transport aircraft had caused quite a stir. It stated that:

The approved price for a 10-cup coffee maker for the C-5 transport plane was $7,622. (…) The price of the coffee brewer does not include a stainless steel pot.

Still expensive today

Accounting for inflation, this amounts to over $19,000 in today’s money. And indeed, the prices of such machines do appear to have risen accordingly. The same newspaper reported in 2016 that “onboard coffee machines (…) cost anywhere from $7,000 to $20,000 apiece.” In February that year, an American Airlines flight had to return to its gate due to a broken hot drinks dispenser.

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Starbucks Coffee in Airport
Many airports are equipped with coffee shops. However, expensive machinery is required to serve passengers hot drinks inflight. Photo: Getty Images

Why are they so costly?

Aircraft coffee pots are primarily expensive due to the additional work that has to be done to deem them safe for use onboard. For example, the Federal Administration Administration, a US government body, “requires coffee makers to have safety features like circuit breakers and wiring insulation to protect against onboard fires.” The fact that aircraft coffee makers are made in smaller numbers than those found in restaurants also drives the price per unit up.

There are also certain mechanical regulations that the machines need to meet. There is never a good time to be splashed with a hot drink, but especially not on an aircraft when the bulk of one’s spare clothes might be in the hold. As such, these dispensers are designed to feature  “latches to ensure that the coffeepot does not shake loose during turbulence.”

DragonAir Coffee Pots
Coffee pots on a former Dragonair plane. Although it might not look like it, the picture displays tens of thousands of dollars worth of safety-regulated beverage technology. Photo: See-ming Lee via Flickr

Despite the seemingly trivial nature of serving coffee on an aircraft, it can have serious safety ramifications. In November 2019, burnt coffee forced a Punta Cana-bound Southwest Airlines flight to make an emergency landing in Norfolk, Virginia. A spillage in the cockpit also caused a Cancun-bound Condor flight to divert to Shannon, Ireland in the same year.

Overall, it is good to know that even a seemingly trivial aspect of commercial aviation is bound by the stringent regulations that help keep the industry safe. It’s certainly interesting to consider the time and money that has gone into serving passengers hot drinks the next time you tuck into a tea or coffee at 30,000 feet. Cheers!

Did you expect that aircraft coffee pots would be so expensive? What do you like to drink while in the skies? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!