Study Ranks Airlines with Safest Onboard Water

The small galley onboard the E-145 (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Mateen Kontoravdis)

A recently released study has ranked the onboard water of major U.S. airlines and it may make you reconsider which airlines you drink non-bottled water on.

The 2019 Airline Water Study, performed by the Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center and DietDetective.com, recently released results that ranked major and regional carriers in the U.S. based on what is called their “Water Health Score.”

To clarify, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires airlines to sample and test onboard water samples periodically in order to ensure no harmful materials are in the water. In addition, on-board water ranks, which store water for the galley and lavatories, are required to be disinfected four times per year.

Along with requiring tests, the EPA also tracks Aircraft Drinking Water Rule (ADWR) violations. As aircraft can store water for public consumption, they are classified as public water systems and are therefore subject of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA).

In short, the ADWR creates metrics and regulations to track health effects from onboard water, chemical contaminants, and microbiological contaminants. The ADWR also ensures that water going into aircraft is clean and does not require filtration from the “parent” water system at airports.

If there are any issues that arise when airlines sample their onboard water, they are required to disclose it to the EPA which may result in an ADWR violation.

However, the study did point out that the EPA rarely imposes penalties on airlines that violate the ADWR.

Factors used to calculate each airline’s Water Health Score include fleet size, ADWR violations, positive E. coli, water sample reports, and whether the sampled airlines are willing to answer questions about their water quality. Scores range from zero to five and per the study, “a score of 3.0 or better indicates that the airline has relatively safe, clean water.”

In the results for major carriers, Alaska Airlines and Allegiant tied for first with a score of 3.3. JetBlue and Spirit ranked at the bottom of the list, with scores of 1.0.

It is worth noting that while Alaska received a relatively high rating, the carrier still had unrecorded ADWR violations from not collecting follow up samples of coliform-positive results. Coliform is a bacteria that is a key indicator of E-coli.

The three legacy carriers, Delta, American, and United, ranked towards the middle with 1.6, 1.5, and 1.2, respectively.

For the regional carriers, Piedmont ranked the highest with a score of 4.33. Sun Country ranked second with a score of 2.78. ExpressJet and Republic ranked towards the bottom of the list with scores of 0.56 and 0.44 respectively.

In order to be absolutely sure you are drinking clean water onboard, the study recommends that passengers stick to bottled water and to not drink coffee or tea that is served on the aircraft.

Akhil Dewan

An “AvGeek” for most of his life, Akhil has always been drawn to aviation. If there is an opportunity to read about an airline, fly on a new airplane, or talk to anyone about aviation, he is on it. Akhil has been on over 20 different kinds of aircraft, his favorite being the MD-80. Additionally, he has visited 5 continents and plans to knock out the remaining two (Africa and Antarctica) soon. Based in Dallas, Akhil graduated from Texas A&M University with a degree in Management Information Systems and currently works in consulting. His dream is to become an airline executive.
Akhil Dewan