Travel involves risks. Is your in-flight coffee one of them?
Ask 50 people what they think of on-board hot beverages and you’ll get fifty different answers. Well, maybe not quite. But answers will likely range from downright disgust to outright adoration (after all, some airlines do serve favorites like illy and Dunkin Donuts coffee) and a whole lot of confusion and ambivalence in between. How do I know? Because I asked a lot of people.
The Dirt—Or, Rather, Possible Poo
Since an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report revealed more than one in 10 of the water samples taken from approximately 300 planes tested positive for coliform in 2004, the airlines have been in hot water over their hot water.
Airlines have been in hot water over their hot water.
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Why should you care about coliform? Plainly put: A positive test for coliform indicates possible contamination by soil or feces—neither of which make good condiments for coffee.
In response to this dirty discovery, the EPA implemented drinking water regulations for airlines. But subsequent EPA tests in 2012 and a separate study on airline water quality published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health in 2015 showed very little improvement.
Yet, every day more than 2.7 million people fly through U.S. airspace alone. And we aren’t hearing of plane-loads of poo-sick passengers. So what exactly is up with the hot water served up there in the air?
Some Drink It a Lot and Live to Tell the Tale
“I think it’s safe to drink hot tea, hot coffee, and other drinks made with hot water on board an airplane,” says Julie Kelley. She’s got good reason to believe so: Kelley’s been a United Airlines flight attendant for 40 years and consumes at least two hot beverages on every flight she works. And she has never once felt sick after drinking anything made with hot water in-flight. Kelley says that if your hot drink does taste bad, it’s likely due to the water source or tanks where it’s been stored, which can vary depending on the airline and routes.
Digital nomad and publisher of The Wayward Home, Kristin Hanes, also enjoys a frequent hot bev on board without any worry. “I’ve heard the horror stories about airplane coffee,” she admits, “but that hasn’t stopped me from ordering it while in the air. I think there are so many possible contaminants in our food and water that my main hope is that my body can handle it. I can’t worry about everything! Plus, if there really was a major issue with airplane coffee, wouldn’t many more people be getting sick? If there were regular outbreaks of norovirus in airplanes I might think again. In the meantime, I’ll keep on drinking my favorite hot beverage in flight.”
Others Avoid It
“I noticed hot drinks had a funny taste so I did some research,” says Ja’Vonne Harley, owner of Advantage International and host of Traveling Culturati. “I learned that the water used is tap water that is stored in tanks. These tanks are seldom cleaned, EPA testing found bacteria present, and the heat [brewing] is not enough to kill the bacteria.” Harley no longer drinks hot beverages onboard and recommends other travelers avoid them as well.
Travel agent and founder of Travel Orchestra, Kat Vallera, also won’t be sipping any hot airline drinks while jetting around the globe. “I’ve read hot water dispensers on planes go long periods without being cleaned,” she shares. Vallera has vivid, unwelcome memories of unsanitary nacho dispensers at a concession stand where she worked as a teen. “Without going into detail, let’s just say this is the reason I don’t eat concession stand nachos, and any criticisms regarding the cleanliness of food or beverage dispensers carry a lot of weight with me.” But cleanliness is not her only concern. Vallera notes that the tiny disposable in-flight cups are wasteful and she prefers to stick to a more sustainable option—her own reusable water bottle that she refills before takeoff.
Water Quality Depends on a Lot of Factors
The quality of water served while soaring through the sky is not uniform across all aircraft and flight routes. Water quality on long haul flights was found to be lower than on shorter flights. In addition, the standards may be different from airport to airport. The water source it comes from, the pipes it flows through, the tanks where it’s stored, and the equipment used to brew it all play a role in determining what ends up in your cup. And not only does the water quality vary, the procedures for cleaning and serving also differ (Is anyone actually washing out those coffee pots?). It’s unrealistic to think that every employee of every airline around the world follows the same procedures as the next. This is precisely why some travelers and flight attendants feel comfortable swearing by their in-flight illy and others wouldn’t touch an airline hot tea with a ten-foot stirring stick.
Alex Da Silva, Hawaiian Airlines Director of External Communications is confident in the quality of the coffee served in the sunny skies over the islands and beyond. “In addition to Hawaiian Airlines internal water safety controls,” Da Silva explains, “we work closely with the EPA to conduct supplementary tests to ensure the treated water we source from municipal systems at the airports we serve remains clean for our guests and crew onboard our aircraft.”
Former flight attendant Debra can’t say the same for an international airline she worked with. “While there were no reports—that I’m aware of—of passengers getting sick from drinking hot water on board, the water came from tanks that were potentially dirty from not being cleaned or maintained properly,” she shares. “I would not trust drinking hot water on board but some other flight crew did because of the nature of the work [needing the caffeine to keep them alert].”
There Is a Risk
“It is possible to be exposed to contaminated water while in-flight,” says Dr. Ralph E. Holsworth. As Director of Clinical and Scientific Research for a functional bottled water brand, he spends a fair amount of time studying and testing water (though not airline-specific water) and he says the temperature of the water can be a cause for concern. “Brewing temperatures [on board] do not kill E. coli bacteria.”
Generally, the water on board is hot (which you already know if you’re the lucky one that always orders just in time for turbulence)—but not technically boiling. Which means if it does contain any bacteria from the source, hoses, or tanks, that bacteria could still be in the water when it fills up your cup. “So,” Dr. Holsworth says, “some travelers might experience contamination from drinking on-board water used to brew coffee and tea.” And while airlines certainly aren’t making lattes in the lavatory, he notes that is another area where travelers encounter bacteria—in the obvious potty places but also potentially in the water coming from the faucet.
Celebrity health consultant and functional medicine nurse practitioner Maggie Beghoff believes bacteria isn’t the only thing to consider. “Poor quality water is not only a high risk for contamination and illness,” she explains, “but it may also contain heavy metals and toxins that inflame and hurt our bodies. Long term, these toxins may contribute to major hormonal imbalance, gastrointestinal complications, and disease.”
So … Bottoms up or What?
“It’s extremely important to stay hydrated,” Berghoff says, “but we do not want to do so at the expense of creating toxicity and illness within our bodies.” She suggests her patients and travelers pack their own glass or stainless steel water bottle and fill it up at a filtered water station in the airport before boarding. “You can also bring packets of electrolyte powder, matcha green tea, or instant coffee for beverage variety and added energy throughout the flight.”
If you’re traveling through destinations where safe drinking water is unavailable, put a filtration bottle such as GRAYL or a purification device like the Steripen (added bonus: the Steripen doubles as a flashlight) on your packing list.
Travel inherently involves risk. And every traveler has to decide for themselves which risks are worth taking. For some people, the possibility of consuming contaminated water is much less concerning that not getting a caffeine fix (admit it: some of you are a non-functioning nightmare before your first cup of coffee). But for more vulnerable populations—babies, elderly, and immunocompromised—playing coliform roulette may not be the best choice.