If you’re thinking about securing a place for yourself among the ranks of the Mile High Club, a cup of coffee and some smooth talking could get you there. But you’ll think twice about the coffee after this report because an anonymous flight attendant from a major international airline has warned the American public that the water used to make coffee on flights may be inadequately filtered toilet water.
The anonymous whistleblower told Vice.com, “Don’t drink the coffee on airplanes. It’s the same potable water that goes through the bathroom system.”
Now, maybe you’re an especially sober-minded frequent flier, and you’re thinking, ‘Okay, but all tap water is filtered gray water. That’s normal. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s unsanitary.’
Well, think again, because our unnamed flight attendant explained that the airline was forced to test their in-flight water on one particular occasion, and it tested positive for E.coli. She said, “And then the maintenance crew came on and hit a couple buttons and it passed.”
Yeah, that’s nasty.
Her advice is to avoid any drink made with hot water such as tea or coffee. Instead, she says, passengers should ask for bottled water. And say ‘no thank you’ to ice.
The cleanliness and safety of in-flight drinking water is regulated by the FAA and the EPA. The EPA is responsible for checking the systems airlines use to filter water as well as the delivery systems used for all food and drink. The FAA watches over the operation and maintenance of these systems. Supposedly.
In order for maintenance crews to be nonchalantly rigging the results of in-flight water purity tests, you would think that this would have to be a recurring problem. Imagine the fallout if people were told on a flight that they could not have hot beverages because the airline had failed to sanitize its drinking water. It would be a disaster, and you can be sure it would hit the news like feces from the proverbial fan. So it seems unlikely that this was a one-off occurrence.
The unnamed flight attendant interviewed by Vice is far from the first airline employee to make claims of this kind. In 2017, another flight attendant told Business Insider that no one should ever drink the tap water on airplanes because it is frequently dirty. She also said that flight attendants bring their own water on flights and do not drink the tap water making it even more glaringly apparent that this is not an isolated or uncommon problem.
Part of the reason flight attendants avoid drinking in flight tap water is that they know the plane’s water system is not cleaned at every stop. In fact, they never know when it is cleaned, and they are not confident in the way the system is cleaned.
Further investigation revealed that a thorough cleaning of an airliner’s water system is rare. More often than not, water lines are only bleached or dosed with chemicals. They are rarely- if ever- physically purged and scrubbed. That means flight attendants can never know if the system has been cleaned, or if the cleaning is even effective.
These claims have been supported by the AFA, which is a union that represents American flight attendants. While there are laws on the books that gives the EPA the authority to ensure that in-flight drinking water is sanitary- there is little to no enforcement.
The AFA said, “The regulation gives broad discretion to airlines on how often they must test the water and flush the tanks. AFA does not believe this regulation goes far enough or is sufficiently enforced.”
Often times, when people travel by plane and get sick, they attribute it to exposure to germs acquired from the place that they visited. We assume that germs living in far away populations are remote enough from us that we have little immunity to them. This is not an uncommon story that people coming back from long flights will tell. ‘Oh, I picked up something funny over there. Well, they tell you not to drink the water! Haha.’
According to the Mayo Clinic, E.coli lives in the intestines and can “cause relatively brief diarrhea. But a few particularly nasty strains, such as E. coli O157:H7, can cause severe abdominal cramps, bloody diarrhea, and vomiting.”
So, that’s not delicious.
More recently, experts have found evidence that temporary infections like E.coli can cause kidney and liver damage many years later- even after an apparently successful recovery. So, if you’re planning a flight and need caffeine- consider No-Doze.