Travel Advice -
The quality of drinking water on airplanes
initial testing of drinking water onboard 158 randomly selected
passenger airplanes shows 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 U. S. airports carried
water that did not meet EPA standards
As part of enforcement activities, EPA randomly tested the water
supplies on domestic and international aircraft arriving at four U.S.
airports during August and September 2004. Aircraft tank water is used
in the galleys and lavatory sinks. 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.
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
EPA is working actively with ATA, which represents a
number of major airlines, as well as with non-ATA members, on agreements
regarding steps the airlines will take to ensure acceptable drinking
water quality. The Agency is also discussing how airlines would provide
the necessary additional testing to determine the nature and extent of
the problem. If the parties are unable to reach an agreement or
agreements promptly, EPA will exercise its enforcement authorities to
achieve these goals. EPA anticipates an agreement with U.S. airlines
EPA began a review of existing guidance in 2002. In
response to the aircraft test results, EPA has accelerated its priority
review of existing regulations and guidance. The Agency is placing
specific emphasis on preventive measures, adequate monitoring, and sound
maintenance practices such as flushing and disinfection of aircraft
- 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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3. Is the
water on planes unsafe?
- EPA indicated that it did not have sufficient
data to make broadly applicable, reliable conclusions about water
quality on passenger aircraft.
- The EPA spokesperson indicated that the
Agency was committed to keeping the American public well informed of
further testing and actions taken, reviewing existing guidance to
determine areas where it might be strengthened, concluding
agreements with the airlines and taking enforcement actions where
actions should fliers take?
- The traveling public may benefit from the
information released today when deciding how they use the water that
comes from aircraft tanks.
- 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
aircraft public water systems is EPA.
9. What is EPA
doing about this problem?
- EPA will update its information and advice to
the traveling public as soon as new information is available.
- EPA is working actively with ATA, which
represents a number of major airlines, as well as with non-ATA
members, to discuss agreements regarding steps the airlines will
take to ensure acceptable drinking water quality.
- The Agency is also discussing how airlines
would provide the necessary additional testing to determine the
nature and extent of the problem.
- If the parties are unable to reach an
agreement or agreements promptly, EPA has indicated that it will
exercise its enforcement authorities to achieve these goals. and it
anticipates an agreement with U.S. airlines shortly.
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