The Surprising Thing Flight Attendants Say You Should Never Do on an Airplane (Though You’ve Probably Done It Many Times)

f you’re like me, you’ve probably lost count of how many times you’ve flown in an airplane from one place to another. And if you’re like me, you’ve probably also lost count of all the different things you’ve had to eat and drink along the way.

But, according to flight attendants — the men and women who should know — there’s one thing you might want to think twice about consuming on your next flight.

That one thing?

A hot cup of coffee or any other drink that uses water from the airplane’s onboard water system.

A flight attendant for a major airline, who was quoted anonymously to protect her job, explained in an interview for Vice:

Don’t drink the coffee on airplanes. It’s the same potable water that goes through the bathroom system. We recently had a test for E. coli in our water and it didn’t pass, and then maintenance came on and hit a couple buttons and it passed. So, avoid any hot water or tea. Bottled and ice is fine, of course.

Another flight attendant told Business Insider,

Flight attendants will not drink hot water on the plane. They will not drink plain coffee, and they will not drink plain tea.

You’d think that an airplane’s water storage and plumbing systems would be designed in a way that would prevent any possibility of contamination from occurring, and according to the airlines, that is the case. However, some flight attendants claim that these systems are not cleaned on a regular basis. According to a flight attendant interviewed by Travel + Leisure magazine, airplane water tanks “are probably only cleaned out every six months to a year.”

Indeed, when the EPA tested water from a variety of commercial airlines in 2012, the agency found that 12 percent of aircraft in the U.S. had at least one positive for coliform bacteria, which are found in the waste of humans and animals and are an indicator of the presence of pathogens, such as E. coli, that can cause illness and even death.

Surprisingly, this is about the same figure as eight years earlier, when the EPA tested the drinking water from 158 randomly selected domestic and international passenger airplanes and found that 12.6 percent did not meet EPA drinking water quality standards.

An investigation by Dallas-based television news station NBC 5 found that some airlines do better than others. In 2012, 13 percent of American Airlines planes were found to have coliform bacteria in their onboard water supplies (with fewer than half of 1 percent testing positive for E. coli), while only 3 percent of Southwest Airlines planes tested positive for coliform (with no tests positive for E. coli).

So, the next time you’re thinking of asking for a hot cup of coffee or tea on a commercial airline flight, think again. Or even better, grab a cup of Starbucks in the terminal and bring it on board with you. And if you’re going to drink water at all, make sure it’s poured out of a bottle — or bring your own.


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