Drinking non-bottled water on an airplane not recommended

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Photo Credit: Song_about_summer/Shutterstock

Flyers on U.S. airlines should avoid drinking any water that doesn't come from a sealed bottle. And yes, that goes for coffee and tea drinkers, too. 

Those are the conclusions of the New York City Food Policy Center at Hunter College, which on Tuesday released its 2019 Airline Water Study in partnership with DietDetective.com. 

The study, a summary of which was provided to Travel Weekly, ranks 11 mainline and 12 regional U.S. airlines based upon the quality of the water aboard their aircraft. In developing the ranking, DietDetective and the NYC Food Policy Center relied on compliance data from the federal government's Aircraft Drinking Water Rule (AWDR), which is overseen by the EPA. The authors also considered the airlines' fleet size and their cooperation in providing answers to questions about their water quality. Airlines were graded on a five-point scale, with a score of 3.0 or higher indicating relatively clean drinking water. 

Among mainline airlines, Alaska and Allegiant airlines led the way with a score of 3.3. Hawaiian was in third place with a 3.1. 

The remaining mainline airlines all earned rankings below 3.0. JetBlue and Spirit each received a 1.0. According to the study, JetBlue has had 354 AWDR violations since the regulation went into effect in 2012, or 1.4 per aircraft based on its current fleet size. The carrier has tested positive for coliform bacteria 144 times, including nine positive E. coli tests. 

Spirit has had 193 AWDR violations, or 1.43 per aircraft. The carrier has tested positive for coliform 31 times, including one positive E. coli test. 

Regional U.S. airlines fared even worse in the water-quality study. The lone bright spot was Piedmont Airlines, a wholly-owned American Airlines subsidiary that operates American Eagle flights. Piedmont scored 4.33 in the ranking and its fleet of 60 aircraft has had just one AWDR violation since the rule took effect in 2012.

The remaining regional airlines scored no better than 2.11 on the five-point scale and four of them scored below 1.0. Those four--Delta-owned Endeavor Air, Air Wisconsin, Express Jet and Republic Airways -- each operate flights for one or more of the Delta Connection, United Express and American Eagle regional brands. 

The AWDR requires airlines to conduct samples from their water tanks for coliform bacteria and possible E. coli. Airlines are also required to disinfect and flush each aircraft's water tank four times per year. Alternatively, an airline may choose to disinfect and flush once a year, but then it must test monthly. 

The authors explained that aircraft fly to numerous destinations and may pump drinking water into their tanks from various sources at domestic and international locations. "The water quality onboard also depends on the safety of the equipment used to transfer the water, such as water cabinets, trucks, carts and hoses." 

JetBlue and Spirit did not immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

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