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Airlines insist the quality of their drinking water on aircraft is up to par, but scientists continue to have doubts.

In an era of increased environmental awareness in which no self-respecting Gen Zer worth their Hydro Flask would be caught dead drinking from a single-use plastic bottle, giving passengers access to clean water on board is a must.

However, the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA has been wary of the quality of drinking water on airplanes for years. In 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) implemented an Aircraft Drinking Water Rule (ADWR) requiring airlines to regularly test their water supply and disinfect and flush each aircraft’s water tanks four times a year. But a recent study conducted by Diet Detective and the Hunter College New York City Food Policy Center suggests little has changed since then: The water of several US carriers is reportedly contaminated with E. coli and coliform.

“There has never been an illness from aircraft potable water, because there have been guidelines for commercial aircraft potable water systems at least since the 1940s.” –Bobbie Egan, Alaska Airlines

According to the study’s author, Charles Platkin, part of the problem is the EPA rarely levies meaningful penalties for ADWR violations; the other part is airlines have been slow to react to the issue. Platkin admits that installing in-cabin refillable water stations – like those found in many airports – isn’t practical at this point, but insists the days of single-use plastic water bottles are numbered. Airlines can get ahead of the issue by, at the very least, retrofitting their existing galley and
in-cabin water systems and/or updating their cleaning processes, he says. “This is a great opportunity for airlines to be leaders in this space.”

Airlines, on the other hand, disagree with his assessment altogether. “As an industry, there has never been an illness from aircraft potable water, because there have been guidelines for commercial aircraft potable water systems at least since the 1940s,” Alaska Airlines spokesperson Bobbie Egan says. “Alaska takes steps each and every day to ensure our customers are safe. This includes boarding potable water that meets the EPA’s stringent ADWR.”

Delta Air Lines also refutes the study, saying it does not accurately convey the quality of drinking water on its aircraft, adding, “we are among the best mainline air carriers for water-quality sample results.” The airline spokesperson adds that Delta has not had an E. coli-positive aircraft water sample since 2015, and that its total coliform-positive rate, which is not a health risk on its own, is aligned with or better than typical municipality rates.

Southwest Airlines and a number of other carriers like United Express, Delta and American Eagle currently sanitize their aircraft water systems with a powerful oxidizing agent that produces a biocide that destroys all bacteria and viruses when dissolved in water. Not only is the ozonation process supposedly greener, faster and cleaner than traditional systems, it is also so passenger-friendly that Southwest proudly posted a YouTube video of the system in action, in 2013. And, “to meet customer preferences, airlines typically provide bottled water while also ensuring that water available on board the aircraft systems is safe,” says Southwest spokesperson Chris Mainz.

According to Joe Winesdoerffer, product line manager for Water Solutions at Collins Aerospace, changes in the way the industry addresses the issue of clean, potable water in flight are definitely afoot. “Collins Aerospace is exploring a number of water-purification methods, including nanotechnologies, and examining ways to redesign products to use antimicrobial and non-metallic materials, reviewing chemical and personal hygiene alternatives, exploring ultrasonic cleansing and considering ways to improve ground services and equipment,” he says.

“Testing the Waters” was originally published in the 10.2 April/May issue of APEX Experience magazine.