Traveling This Summer? You Might Want to Beware of Not-So-Clean Tap Water on Planes

People on board a flight

While many of us know that flying dehydrates you thanks to that thin, recycled air and lack of humidity, we used to think that simply asking for a drink of water from those nice flight attendants with the drink carts would be an easy fix. Right? Wrong.

While asking for a glass of water instead of soda or a cocktail should make sense for staying hydrated in this situation, you may want to think twice before asking for tap. Many flight attendants have shed light on the less-than-ideal cleanliness conditions of tap water on planes, saying that they themselves avoid drinking it on many major airlines because the tanks used to hold the water are rarely cleaned or tested for bacteria.

Although there are regulations in place governing the cleanliness of airplane water storage containers, a 2015 study found that those outlined conditions are actually “conducive for microbial growth.” That’s not to say that there’s been no attention given to the issue. Since October of 2011, for example, the EPA has required that the tanks be cleaned and tested for coliform (bacteria found in human feces) and E. coli at least once and up to four times a year. Still, EPA documents from just two years later demonstrated that 12 percent of all commercial airplanes in the U.S. tested positive for coliform in their water at least once—that’s just one in ten commercial airplanes. Not surprisingly, a spokesperson from the Association of Flight Attendants said in a statement that the “AFA does not believe this regulation goes far enough or is sufficiently enforced.”

So, if you steer clear of glasses of tap water on the plane, you’ll be good to go, right? Well, not quite. Unfortunately, the water in these infrequently-cleaned tanks onboard commercial flights is also used to brew the tea and coffee that they serve aboard the flight, meaning you might need to skip your post-dinner or early morning caffeine fix. The best option? Grab some coffee beforehand if you need to stay awake throughout the flight, or pick up a cold, bottled coffee beverage at your gate. As for the water, try snagging a bottle before boarding your flight, or just asking for bottled water on the plane. Ask, and you shall receive.