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.
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
bacteria; two of these aircraft (1.3 percent) also tested
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
What has EPA Done About Airplane Water Quality?
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
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
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
- 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
- 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.
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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
- 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.
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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
- 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
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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