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The EPA is charged with monitoring water quality on commercial airline flights.  You just might want to avoid "tap" water on airplanes 



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Travel Advice - The quality of drinking water on airplanes


As part of its water quality enforcement activities, EPA randomly tests the water supplies on domestic and international aircraft.  Aircraft tank water is used in the galleys and lavatory sinks on commercial planes. In general, the results of these test are not available to the public and have not been public since the agency released some initial data in 2004.

Results from initial testing of drinking water onboard 158 randomly selected passenger airplanes, arriving at four U.S. airports during August and September 2004 showed that most of the aircraft tested (87.4%) met EPA drinking water quality standards. However, 12.6 percent of domestic and international passenger aircraft tested at  the U.S. airports carried water that did not meet EPA standards.

Initial testing of onboard water supply revealed 20 aircraft (12.6 percent) with positive results for total coliform bacteria; two of these aircraft (1.3 percent) also tested positive for E.coli. Both total coliform and E.coli are indicators that other disease-causing organisms (pathogens) may be present in the water and could potentially affect public health.

When sampling identified total coliform in the water, the aircraft involved was retested. In repeat testing on 11 aircraft, the Agency confirmed that water from 8 of these planes still did not meet EPA’s water quality standards.

What Are Possible Explanations?

A significant part of aircraft travel includes international flights. According to the Air Transport Association (ATA), about 90 percent of ATA member aircraft have the potential to travel internationally. These aircraft may take on water from foreign sources that are not subject to EPA drinking water standards.

What has EPA Done About Airplane Water Quality?

EPA worked with ATA, which represents a number of major airlines, as well as with non-ATA members, on agreements regarding steps the airlines should take to ensure acceptable drinking water quality. The Agency, also. discussed how airlines would provide the necessary additional testing to determine the nature and extent of the problem.

EPA began a review of existing guidance in 2002. In response to the aircraft test results, EPA accelerated its priority review of existing regulations and guidance. The Agency placed specific emphasis on preventive measures, adequate monitoring, and sound maintenance practices such as flushing and disinfection of aircraft water systems.

In 2010, the EPA passed an Aircraft Drinking Water Rule.  There seems to be little "beef" in the regulations, but you can find out more here.

  • In 2012 the EPA in a limited disclosure, forced by a Freedom of Information request, revealed that about 1 in 10 planes still tested positive for coliform bacteria.
  • Apparently, the evaluation data that is being gathered by the EPA is designed to be shared with specific members of the  airline industry and not the public who travel using commercial aviation. 

Important Questions

1. What are coliforms?

  • Coliforms are a group of closely related bacteria most of which are natural and common inhabitants of the soil and ambient waters (such as lakes and rivers) and in the digestive tracts of humans and other warm-blooded animals.
  • The presence of total coliform, in and of itself, is not indicative of a health risk. Coliform bacteria will not likely cause illness. However, the presence of coliform bacteria in drinking water indicates that other disease-causing organisms (pathogens) may be present in the water system.  Top of page

2. What is E. coli?

  • E. coli is a subgroup of the fecal coliform group. It is found in great quantities in the intestines of people and warm-blooded animals. If total coliform is present in a drinking water sample, EPA requires that it also be tested for E. coli or fecal coliform.
  • Most E. coli are harmless. Some strains, however, may cause illness - diarrhea, cramps, nausea, headaches, or other symptoms. The presence of E. coli or fecal coliform in a drinking water sample may indicate human or animal fecal contamination - meaning that pathogens may be present.  Top of page


3.  What actions should fliers take?

  • Passengers with suppressed immune systems or others concerned should request bottled or canned beverages while on the aircraft and refrain from drinking tea or coffee that does not use bottled water.
  • While boiling water for one minute will remove pathogens from drinking water, the water used to prepare coffee and tea aboard a plane may not be brought to a sufficiently high temperature to guarantee that pathogens are killed.

5. Where does the water on passenger airplanes come from?

  • In the United States, water loaded aboard aircraft comes from public water systems.
  • The water provided by public water systems is regulated by state and federal authorities. That water may be delivered to the aircraft holding tank via piping from the airport itself or a hose from a water tanker.

6. What about international flights?

  • A significant part of aircraft travel includes international flights. According to the Air Transport Association (ATA), about 90 percent of ATA member aircraft have the potential to travel internationally.
    • These aircraft may board water from foreign sources which are not subject to EPA drinking water standards.

7. Who regulates water on passenger airplanes in the United States?

  • In the United States, drinking water safety on airlines is jointly regulated by the EPA, Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). EPA regulates the parent systems that supply water to the airports and the drinking water once it is on board the aircraft.
  • FDA has jurisdiction over culinary water (e.g., ice) and the points where aircraft obtain water (e.g., pipes or tankers) at the airport. FAA requires airline companies to submit operation and maintenance plans for all parts of the aircraft, including the potable water system.

8. What is the airlines’ role in ensuring safe water on aircraft?

  • The regulatory structure for all public water systems, including aircraft, relies upon self-monitoring and reporting of results to the primacy agency. The primacy agency for evaluating aircraft public water systems is the EPA.

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