You might just want to wait to get your caffeine fix.

By Dan Nosowitz
March 18, 2019

With spring break coming up soon, you might be heading to the airport for a trip somewhere warm, which, congratulations, great idea! It can be tempting to order a coffee or tea when the drink cart rolls around, especially on morning flights, or flights where you’ve optimistically decided to get a bunch of work done. But maybe you shouldn’t.

Image courtesy of Getty.

There are multiple reasons why ordering a hot drink on a plane might be a bad idea. For one, caffeinated drinks like coffee and tea are diuretics, meaning that they’ll dehydrate you—and planes, with their dry air, are already essentially big dehydrating tubes. For another, the change in air pressure, the dryness of the air, and the fact that airplane coffee isn’t exactly the best to begin with all adds up to an unsatisfying cup.

But one less known reason is enough by itself to discourage you from drinking coffee, tea, or really any other non-bottled water on a flight. Research and surveys indicate that somewhere between 10 and 15 percent of airplane water samples tested positively for coliform bacteria, which usually comes from fecal matter.

It’s widely cited that flight attendants will not drink the water on airplanes, and said in a statement that the regulation for cleanliness of the water tanks on planes neither goes far enough nor is properly enforced.

So why would airplane water be so gross? It comes down to the sources and maintenance. Water piped into airplane tanks comes from delivery trucks, which a 2015 study found had higher microbial rates than other sources of water. Then once they’re in the plane’s tanks, the requirements for cleaning and replacing are not as stringent as you might like. Airlines are required to “routinely disinfect and flush” their tanks, but how often is “routine”? The only regulations are “in accordance with the manufacturer instructions,” rather than, say, once a day, once a week, or even once a month.

Staying hydrated on flights is important, but any beverage that comes from tap water—including coffee and tea—might come with side effects you’re not enthused about. Instead, bring an empty water bottle (to get past security) and fill it up at a water fountain once you’re near your gate. Or opt for bottled water. Anything but the coffee.


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