Why You Can’t Drink Airplane Tap Water

Flying low-cost often means that in-flight refreshments come at a price, and a healthy price at that. For those who do not want to pay exorbitant amounts of money, being thirsty at the start of the flight can lead to discomfort. The temptation to quench this thirst may lead some to consider drinking the tap water on the plane, which would likely be a bad idea. Simple Flying takes a look at why you shouldn’t drink airplane tap water, even if you have to pay three Euros…

Southwest 737 MAX
Drinking tap water on an airplane could end up costing you more than the price of a bottle. Photo: Southwest

Why would someone consider tap water?

Every person who has been inside the restroom of an airplane will have noticed signs indicating that the tap water is not fit for drinking. For many passengers, this would just pass them by, if they had access to free in-flight refreshments. For those who have to pay for bottled water, however, the clear water running from the taps may well leave them to question why they can’t drink from them.

On many budget airlines, the in-flight pricing on its beverages is marked-up considerably. A half-liter of water can easily cost in the region of $4. Having already forked out money on flights, passengers are loathe to pay the added premium.

Why You Can’t Drink Airplane Tap Water
Bottled water on budget flights may easily cost in the region of €3. Photo: liz west via Flickr

Just over a year ago, Simple Flying reported on a debacle on a Scoot flight. A male passenger requested plain water, and upon declining to pay for a bottle, was offered a glass full of ice. The cabin crew refused to serve him tap water, and instead, he had to wait for the ice to melt before he could drink it. As upset as the passenger was, he might be grateful to have not had water from the tanks.

Why is it bad for you?

Airplane tap water is stored in on-board tanks that house the liquid for tea, coffee, and to service the restrooms. These tanks are often stored without cleaning for long periods at a time, leading to the potential build-up of bacteria in the stagnating water. When re-stocking the aircraft before departure, water tanks are more likely to be topped-up, instead of emptied before being re-used. Studies on the water quality on airplanes have led to some scary revelations.

In 2017, the Environmental Protection Agency found that 12% of commercial planes in the US tested positive for faecal bacteria in its water. This may be caused by not disinfecting the restrooms sufficiently, and by the build-up of old infected water in the tanks.

Why You Can’t Drink Airplane Tap Water
The EPA found that 12% of US commercial aircraft had traces of faecal bacteria in the tap water. Photo: DonkeyHotey via Flickr

Hunter College’s NYC Food Policy Centre investigated the cleanliness of the water running from the airplane taps in 2018, and concluded that the tap water should be avoided – including with the coffee and tea on board.

Even though strict measures are in place to ensure clean water is supplied to the airlines, the potability is dependent on constant application of health and safety protocol. In an industry where time is of the essence, these procedures can easily be overlooked when aircraft are re-stocked for flight.

Should airlines ensure the potability of tap water?

Most people consider water to be a basic necessity that should not be paid for when traveling by air. Health and safety standards in commercial aviation provide the opportunity for airlines to offer clean drinking tap water on flights, but the reality of the matter is that it is too risky to chance.

With carriers such as Alaska Airlines and Allegiant offering relatively clean and safe water, it begs the question of why all airlines can’t comply with regulations such as the Aircraft Drinking Water Rule (A US-government policy from 2011).

The other side of the coin? As one passenger on the Scoot flight put it, if you can afford a flight ticket then you can afford to buy bottled water.

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