Travel: Is Water on Planes Safe?

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Airline Water - Is it Safe?

FAQ from the EPA

  1. What is EPA announcing regarding airline water quality?
  2. What are the results of EPA's sampling of aircraft in 2004?
  3. What is EPA doing about this problem?
  4. Which airlines signed agreements with EPA?
  5. What will the orders require the airlines to do?
  6. What are coliforms?
  7. What is E. coli?
  8. Is the water on planes unsafe?
  9. What should the traveling public do?
  10. Where does the water on passenger airplanes come from?
  11. What about international flights?
  12. Who regulates water on passenger airplanes in the United States?
  13. What is the airlines' role in ensuring safe water on aircraft?
  14. How is water currently regulated on passenger airplanes?

1. What is EPA announcing regarding airline water quality?

EPA is announcing that it has signed agreements (administrative orders upon consent) with 11 major domestic airlines and 13 smaller charter and low-cost airlines to ensure the safety of the drinking water used by their passengers and crew . This announcement is an update to one that was made on Jan. 19, 2005, when EPA announced the results of the additional water quality inspections by EPA enforcement officials on 169 randomly selected domestic and international passenger aircraft at 12 airports throughout the U.S.

2. What are the results of EPA's sampling of aircraft in 2004?

During the summer of 2004, EPA conducted water quality sampling of one or more galley water taps, water fountains or lavatory faucets on each of 158 aircraft at 7 airports. As EPA announced in September 2004, 12.7% of those aircraft (20 aircraft) were found to be positive for the presence of total coliform bacteria.

During November-December of 2004, EPA conducted a second round of water quality sampling of 169 aircraft at 12 airports. This second round of monitoring sought water samples from galley water taps as well as lavatory faucets for each aircraft. EPA found that 17.2% of these aircraft (29 aircraft) were total-coliform-positive.

Of the aircraft sampled by EPA in this second round of sampling, 76.3% were US-based. For this round of sampling, the results for foreign-based or US-based aircraft were relatively close. Of the 40 foreign-based carriers sampled during this round, 17.5% (7 aircraft) were total-coliform-positive. By comparison, of the 129 US-based aircraft sampled during this round, 17.1% (22 aircraft) were total-coliform-positive.

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Overall, adding together the results of the first and second rounds of EPA sampling of aircraft, EPA has sampled 327 aircraft in 2004. Overall, 15.0% of the aircraft sampled were found to be total-coliform-positive. Overall, 4.3% of the galleys or water fountains sampled were found to be total-coliform-positive; 14.0% of the lavatory faucets sampled were found to be total-coliform-positive. Overall, 49 aircraft were found to be total-coliform-positive. Overall, 76.8% of the aircraft sampled by EPA in this second round of sampling were US-based, and 23.2% of the aircraft. Of the 76 foreign-based carriers sampled overall, 19.7% were total-coliform-positive. By comparison, of the 251 US-based aircraft sampled, 13.5% were total-coliform-positive.

3. What is EPA doing about this problem?

EPA has met with airline officials many times to ensure that they are aware of the problem. EPA is negotiating with the industry to increase monitoring of aircraft water systems and ensure that in the event of contamination, contingency plans are immediately implemented. EPA is negotiating agreements with Delta Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Omni Air International and Southwest Airlines. EPA has also begun negotiations with the smaller, regional and charter aircraft carriers to address drinking water quality with orders similar to those reached with the major carriers. The Agency will also negotiate similar orders with foreign flagged carriers to the extent that it has jurisdiction.

After two rounds of testing, data showed 15 percent of the aircraft had water samples that tested positive for total coliform contamination. As a response to these findings, EPA has initiated several actions to ensure that airline water is as safe as any other public drinking water supply. These orders require the carriers to take steps to investigate the problem, take corrective actions, and notify the public. Furthermore, the orders will require each airline to complete testing of their entire fleet within a period of 12 months and to submit a detailed report to EPA on its findings.

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.

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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?

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.

11. 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. 

12. 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 submit operation and maintenance plans for all parts of the aircraft, including the potable water system. 

13. 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 primary agency. The primary agency for aircraft public water systems is EPA. 

14. How is water currently regulated on passenger airplanes?

The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) regulates water quality in public water systems. Water Supply Guidance 29 was issued in 1986 in an effort to tailor SDWA requirements to address the unique characteristics of Interstate Commerce Carriers, such as aircraft. Under the guidance, ICC operators had been allowed to substitute an operations and maintenance plan for regular monitoring of the vehicle's water system if it was approved by EPA. At this time, EPA is no longer accepting operation and maintenance plans as the ICC program is being revised.

SOURCE: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency - Last updated on Wednesday, August 16th, 2006


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Reviewed on 11/5/2007

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