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The Gross Reason You Should Never Drink Water on Airplanes



By Jessica Poitevien, T+L, May 2024


According to Kat Kamalani, water should be avoided at all costs while on a flight — here's why. TikTok may serve up viral dance crazes and unusual trends, but it's also a space where you can learn some random facts — even ones you might not want to know.  


In one such TikTok video, former flight attendant Kat Kamalani dishes on what you absolutely should not eat or drink while on a plane. Brace yourself — her advice might surprise (and perhaps even disgust) you.

"Rule number one: Never consume any liquid that is not in a can or a bottle," she says in the video, explaining that "those water tanks are never cleaned and they are disgusting."


Kamalani goes on to say that she and her fellow flight attendants hardly ever drink coffee or hot tea while on a flight, as they both use the same water tanks that "are rarely cleaned unless they are broken."


To make matters worse, those water tanks are located right next to the lavatories.


Kamalani recommends asking for bottled water or canned soft drinks instead — and she's not the first one to make this suggestion.

A few years ago, flight attendants urged passengers to steer clear of coffee and tea, citing a 2004 EPA sample of 158 planes with some very grim results. Of the planes sampled, 13 percent contained coliform and two even had dangerous levels of E. coli in the water.


More recent studies have not been very promising, either.

2019 study by the Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center at the City University of New York and DietDetective.com analyzed the quality of drinking water on 11 major and 12 regional airlines.


"The quality of drinking water varies by airline, and many airlines have possibly provided passengers with unhealthy water," the study states.

A "water health score" ranging from five (best) to zero (worst) was given to each airline. Several factors were taken into consideration, including fleet size and positive E. coli and coliform water sample reports. Any score above three indicated relatively clean drinking water, according to the study.


Of the 10 major airlines analyzed, seven received a score of under three, leaving the study with the same conclusion as Kamalani: Avoid airplane tap water at all costs. The study even takes things a step further, suggesting that passengers shouldn't wash their hands on a flight, as the water in the lavatories comes from the same tank. Instead, the study recommends using hand sanitizer.


Whether or not you want to take things that far is up to you, but there seems to be enough consensus on avoiding anything that doesn't come in a bottle or can while flying.


RELATED ARTICLE: You Should Think Twice Before Having Ice on a Plane


You may be tempted to order a cocktail or a fizzy beverage the moment you sit down on your next flight. And that’s OK — there are plenty of great options available. However, there’s one part of your drink order you may want to think twice about while hurdling through the air at 30,000 feet: your ice. 


While planes rarely have onboard ice machines, they do get their ice delivered from third-party services. And, according to a 2017 peer-reviewed study published in the Annals of Microbiology, ice is, quite bluntly, a little gross.


The researchers took samples from 60 ice cubes from both domestic and industrial facilities, which contained more than 50 different strains of bacteria. The researchers added, "A consistent percentage of the microorganisms identified from ice are known agents of human infections, and their presence indicates an environmental contamination.” That means, the cubes are likely picking up the grimy stuff somewhere along the way from the ice factory to your cup, which brings us to our next point — ice trays onboard planes are likely disgusting.

 

“Don’t get ice in your drink, don’t drink coffee, tea, or hot water on the plane, and don’t touch anything in the lavatory with your bare skin,” a Reddit user claiming to be a flight attendant commented on a viral thread from 2017. “The ice is put in a tray with a scoop, and the trays don’t get cleaned very often. Every surface on the plane is touched by hundreds of people daily and not often disinfected. We don’t have the opportunity to wash our hands at all during the beverage service.” 


And if the Reddit user thought things were bad in 2017, they should get a load of 2023. “Some flight attendants get upset because it’s not clean,” Verna Montalvo, a cabin cleaner at Dallas-Fort Worth airport, shared with The Washington Post. “Of course, it’s not clean — because this is how much [time] they give us.”


According to Montalvo, both time constraints and labor shortages have contributed to a lack of airplane cleanliness. In fact, Montalvo stated her crew often has under five minutes to both clean and inspect planes. She’s even been tasked with cleaning an entire plane by herself. “We need time and more people,” Montalvo added. 


And you should forget about the onboard water on planes too. A 2019 peer-reviewed study by the Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center at the City University of New York showed that the drinking water on 11 major and 12 regional airlines is possibly unsafe for human consumption. 


For the study, the researchers gave each airline a "Water Health Score" based on 10 criteria, with 5 as the highest rating and 0 as the lowest. A score of 3 or better indicated an airline’s onboard water was “relatively” safe. As the findings showed, seven out of the 10 major airlines analyzed scored under a 3. Only Allegiant and Alaska (3.3 each) and Hawaiian Airlines (3.1) scored above the threshold. 


“My takeaway from doing the research was to not drink the coffee and the tea. At all,” Charles Platkin, Ph.D., JD, MPH, and the executive director of the Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center, told Travel + Leisure. And, just as his team wrote in the findings, Platkin stated, “I don't wash my hands either. I have wipes that I use,” as they believe the water in the airplane bathrooms is too contaminated to do any good. 

If, however, you simply cannot go without ice for a single flight there is one way around it — order a strong cocktail or at least a soda. As the ice researchers concluded, there is a “consistent reduction of bacterial risk due to alcohol, CO2, pH and antibacterial ingredients of vodka, whisky, Martini, peach tea, tonic water, and Coke.”

But to avoid any confusion, maybe just bring your own bottled beverage instead. 


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