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These Airlines Have the Dirtiest Onboard Drinking Water

File this under: Maybe you don’t want to know. The 2019 Airline Water Study from Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center and ranks the safety of the onboard water of a dozen major airlines. This is … probably not something most people think about. After all, doesn’t onboard drinking water come from water bottles?

Mostly, yes. But all airlines have huge onboard water tanks that are used for taps in the galley (mainly for making coffee and tea, and sometimes ice), for bathrooms, and, yes, can be used for drinking. There’s even an Aircraft Drinking Water Rule (ADWR) enforced by the EPA, which requires airlines to sample onboard water to test for coliform bacteria and E. coli, and flush and disinfect tanks four times per year (or once per year, if it’s tested more often).

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The study ranks 11 major airlines and 12 regional carriers by a “Water Health Score,”which is based on 10 criteria including fleet size, the airline’s number of ADWR violations, positive E. coli and coliform water sample reports, and the airline’s willingness to answer to water-quality questions.

Glass Half Empty

So, how is the water? Depends on which airline you’re flying.

“Alaska Airlines and Allegiant win the top spot with the safest water in the sky, and Hawaiian Airlines finishes No. 2,” says Charles Platkin, PhD, JD, MPH, and executive director of the Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center. Spirit Airlines and (perhaps surprisingly) JetBlue had the lowest scores.

Here are the full rankings of airlines’ onboard drinking water, with their scores (zero is the lowest, five is the highest). According to the study, “a score of 3.0 or better indicates that the airline has relatively safe, clean water.”

    • Alaska Airlines: 3.3
    • Allegiant Air: 3.3
    • Hawaiian Airlines: 3.1
    • Frontier Airlines: 2.6
    • Southwest Airlines: 2.4
    • Delta Air Lines: 1.6
    • American Airlines: 1.5
    • United Airlines: 1.2
    • JetBlue: 1
    • Spirit Airlines: 1

    The study also pointed a finger at the EPA itself, saying “the Environmental Protection Agency—one of the federal agencies responsible for ensuring safe aircraft drinking water—rarely levies civil penalties to airlines in violation of the ADWR,” and further bestows a “Shame on You” award to both the EPA and the major airlines studied “for their very poor response time and lack of cooperation answering detailed questions. “

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For travelers concerned about onboard water quality, the study has three suggestions: “Never drink any water onboard that isn’t in a sealed bottle, do not drink coffee or tea onboard, and do not wash your hands in the bathroom; bring hand-sanitizer with you instead.” You can read more about the findings for each airline here.

Readers: Do you drink the onboard drinking water when you travel? Have you ever thought about where that water comes from?

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By Carl Unger

Contributing Editor Carl Unger believes that every trip is worth taking. He loves an extended trip to Europe as much as he enjoys exploring the towns and landscape near home. Basically, you'll find him wherever there is good food, fresh air, and plenty of stories to bring home.

Carl has been writing for SmarterTravel since 2005. His travel writing has also appeared on USA Today and the Boston travel guide.

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