The stories have been floating around for quite some time, and new research has added fuel to the fire: according to a recent study, many major airlines’ drinking water might not be as safe as passengers would like to believe. 

Flight attendant holding tray with coffee
A recent study indicates that you really shouldn't be drinking coffee or tea when you're in the air. Image: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

For their 2019 Airline Water Study, the nonprofit DietDetective.com and the City University of New York’s Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center analyzed the quality of the water provided onboard 33 airlines—11 major carriers and 12 regional—and only four of them were found to have “relatively safe, clean water.” 

Alaska Airlines and Allegiant Air tied for the top spot among the major players, with Hawaiian Airlines a close second; Piedmont was the only regional carrier to make the grade, while JetBlue and Spirit finished last in a dead heat. To come up with the rankings, airlines were given a score from zero to five based on ten factors, including fleet size, violations of the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2011 Aircraft Drinking Water Rule (ADWR), and water samples, collected between 2012 and 2019, that tested positive for E. coli and coliform bacteria. Airlines that received a three or higher were deemed acceptable.

Guy drinking coffee in airport.jpg
You're better off getting your caffeine fix while you're on the ground. Image: izusek/Getty Images

Frontier and Southwest were close with a 2.6 and a 2.4 respectively, but Delta, American, and United were all well under par at 1.6, 1.5, and 1.2. Of course, those rankings only apply to the water that comes from onboard tanks, so anything the flight attendants pour from a sealed bottle is fine – but coffee and tea is risky, and the water from the bathroom sink is so suspect that the study’s authors actually recommend hand sanitizer in lieu of hand-washing altogether. 

Bare feet on back of tray table
The water isn't the only dirty thing onboard. Image: NadyaEugene/Shutterstock

“I also don’t wash my hands in the lavatory anymore,” DietDetective.com editor and Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center executive director Charles Platkin told HuffPost after the study’s release. “I make sure to have sanitizer. If you wash your hands in what could potentially be unsafe water, it sort of negates the whole process of actually washing your hands. You could be spreading E. coli all over... Sure, it’s not likely, but why should you take any chance?”

With all those germs flying around, it seems increasingly likely that Naomi Campbell had the right idea.

Explore related stories

Kem Beach is one of the island's prettiest - Phu Quoc - Vietnam © James Pham / Lonely Planet

Beaches

Copy My Trip: A Phu Quoc beach escape

Jul 19, 2024 • 5 min read