3 Drinks Flight Attendants Avoid When They’re Flying

Oct 19, 2017 by

You might think twice about ordering these beverages when you’re on a plane.

Photo Credit: First Class Photography/Shutterstock

Falling sick from a flight is not exactly news to regular travelers. Typically, we attribute this to the piped in air and claustrophobic quarters which act like an incubator for infectious ailments. But what if that oxygenated vacuum isn’t the only disease-causing agent aboard?

“Flight attendants will not drink hot water on the plane. They will not drink plain coffee, and they will not drink plain tea,” a member of that very profession recently told Business Insider. Why is that the case? The problem has to do with the fact that these caffeinated beverages are brewed from the airplane’s own water supply, a source that first came into question following a study conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency back in 2004.

For that report, the EPA tested the onboard drinking water of “158 randomly selected passenger airplanes.” According to the EPA findings around 13 percent, or one in ten airplanes, contained coliform (a hazardous form of E.coli bacteria) in its water supply. In that same Business Insider article it was further reported that through a Freedom of Information Act Request, a 2012 follow-up study by the EPA showed that the situation regarding airplane water had remained unchanged.

It seems this issue largely comes down to regulation. Quoted by Business Insider, the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA explained that the EPA is responsible for implementing regulations to ensure “safe drinking water on the aircraft.” The AFA continued that it had insisted on these measures “over 15 years ago,” but because it “gives broad discretion to airlines on how often they must test the water and flush the tanks… [the AFA] does not believe this regulation goes far enough or is sufficiently enforced.”

So how exactly is this regulation enforced? NBC 5 reported that the EPA “requires airlines to test for coliform and E. coli on every airplane at least once a year.” If the airline is found to contain either bacteria, the regulation requires that they flush the tanks and restrict water access until tests show the water is clean. The problem is that bacteria still enter the water supply through the hoses used to fill up the tanks at airports. A 2015 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health highlights this fact, indicating that the most harmful microorganisms found in an airplane’s onboard water come from the transport vehicles that deliver the supply.

John Goglia, an aviation safety consultant, added his own concerns about onboard water in a column published on Forbes. “Thirty years ago when I was working for USAir, we began a process to bleach the water tanks that hold the water and flush out the system,” wrote Goglia, who noted that this was done on a regular basis. The problem, Goglia added, was that “a lot of sediment” began to accumulate in the tanks even after they were bleached and flushed. “It’s hard to drink anything made with water from those tanks after seeing what accumulates in there,” he said.

It would appear then that drinking coffee or tea on an airplane remains a risky endeavor. A recent Condé Nast Traveler article, however, suggest that these concerns may be inflated. In fact, as a result of reported issues around onboard water, the article reported, the airline industry has since come to implement “newer, stricter regulations.” A statement from Airlines for America, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying group that represents the largest airlines in the country, was included in the article to back up this claim. According to the group’s statement, the “water received from municipalities for onboard systems is safe,” thanks to “rigorous sampling and management requirements.”

Of course speaking as a group that represents the business interests of airlines, it’s probably worth taking this statement with a pinch of salt. The best way to decide whether or not you should enjoy a hot beverage on your next flight is to simply use your better judgment. If, say, you suffer from a “compromised immune system,” Dr. Cedrik Spak, a disease specialist at Baylor University Medical Center, told NBC, then you should probably give the drinks a miss. Or, as the Condé Nast article rightfully points out, “if you’re departing from an international location you know to have lax food safety standards” it is probably also a good idea to hold off on that onboard water.

Robin Scher is a freelance writer from South Africa currently based in New York.

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