Travel: Is Water on Planes Safe? (cont.)

In addition, EPA accelerated the rule-making process to develop regulations specifically for water onboard aircraft. At the present time, EPA is working collaboratively with interested stakeholders and other federal agencies that have oversight responsibilities for the industry to develop a rule that will ensure safe drinking water on all aircraft.

Since EPA has not determined the actual sources of contamination, more study and evaluation will be necessary. In 2004, EPA sampled 327 aircraft and notified the airlines of the findings. When sampling identified total coliform in the water of domestic aircraft, that aircraft was disinfected and retested to ensure that the disinfection was effective. In instances where foreign flag aircraft tested positive for total coliform, those airline companies were notified of the positive test result and advised to disinfect and retest the aircraft.

EPA will continue to update its information and advice to the traveling public as soon as new information is available.

4. Which airlines signed the administrative orders on consent with EPA?

Administrative orders on consent have been finalized with: AirTran Airways, Alaska Airlines, Aloha Airlines, American Airlines, America West, ATA Airlines, Champion Air, Continental Airlines, Continental Micronesia, Falcon Air Express, Frontier Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, Miami Air International, Midwest Airlines, North American Airlines, Northwest Airlines, Pace Airlines, Ryan International Airlines, Spirit Airlines, Sun Country Airlines, United Airlines, US Airways, USA 3000 Airlines, and World Airways.

5. What will the orders require the airlines to do?

The Administrative Orders on Consent require the airlines to implement regular monitoring and disinfection protocols for their entire fleet of aircraft for a period of two years from the effective date of the Order. Specifically, the orders require the airlines to:

  • perform regular monitoring of aircraft water systems;
  • regularly disinfect aircraft water systems and water transfer equipment;
  • undertake corrective action when there is a total coliform positive sample result;
  • provide public notice when there is a total coliform positive sample result;
  • conduct a study of possible sources of contamination that exist outside of the aircraft; and
  • supply information regarding various aspects of its water practices.

The results of the study are to be submitted no later than two years from the effective date of the Order.

For example, in the event that an aircraft were to test positive for total coliform at any of the test points on the aircraft, the airline would be required to immediately suspend water service and provide notification, provide bottled water, re-test the aircraft, disinfect the aircraft and test once again to insure that the disinfection was effective. Once the aircraft tests clean, all water service can resume on the plane. The regular establishment of testing protocols will allow EPA to analyze the data and make determinations about possible sources of contamination and how to address them.

6. 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.

7. 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.

8. Is the water on planes unsafe?

At this time, EPA does not have sufficient data to make broadly applicable, reliable conclusions about water quality on passenger aircraft. What EPA has found in its testing is that coliform contamination is not limited to a specific subcategory of aircraft. It was found on U.S. flag aircraft, foreign flag aircraft, domestic flights, international flights, large aircraft, small aircraft, lavatories, and galleys. In order to address this situation, EPA is 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 warranted.

9. What should the traveling public do?

The traveling public may benefit from the information released by EPA 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 is not generally brought to a sufficiently high temperature to guarantee that pathogens are killed.

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