Confronting the Rumor Once and for All: Is Airplane Coffee Safe to Drink?

Here's what you need to know to make an informed decision on your next flight.

If you're a frequent traveler, surely you've heard from someone along the way: Don't drink airplane coffee. Or tea. Or water that doesn't come out of a bottle. The logic behind the guideline is that the water used to deliver such beverages is just plain dirty. But is that true... and what's really behind it?

Let's break it down once and for all. The water comes from a fresh tap water holding tank that sits next to the human waste and trash tank on your flight. While this water technically does meet safety standards, it may not meet your own standards for aesthetics and cleanliness.

According to a longtime flight attendant, "Those tanks are very difficult and costly to access and can usually only be cleaned with chemicals. There is periodic testing of the tanks performed and whenever E. coli or some other serious pathogen is detected, maintenance personnel are required to deactivate the associated water system."

Beyond that, consider what the water goes through before it even makes it into the on-board tanks. The water comes from an even larger tank and through sometimes old, dirty pipes in the departure destination. These pipes may be full of harmful bacteria. 

According to theKitchn, "A 2012 Environmental Protection Agency report testing water from commercial airlines in the United States found that 12 percent of them tested positive for coliform, indicating that the water could contain other harmful bacteria." Yikes.

If you're going to need some coffee on a long flight, purchase bottled water in the airport or on the plane. Ask the flight crew to heat it, and use instant coffee packets to make your own.

Sorry if you don't fancy instant coffee, but cannot brew your own coffee on board: It's banned by the FAA, and a passenger actually found himself with a lifetime flight ban from U.S. Airways for doing this.  

You might also consider freezing your favorite coffee beverage and bringing it through airport security that way — yes, it's totally legal and it totally works.

Perhaps the irony in the gross airplane water situation is that the coffee is typically of decent quality. Both Alaska Airlines and Delta serve Starbucks on board. United Airlines serves Hawaiian Kona Blend. American Airlines offers Rainforest Alliance Certified coffee from Java City in your cup. JetBlue serves Dunkin' Donuts. 

NBC News posited a few other theories why the coffee might taste terrible on board — such as the coffee might secretly be decaf (gasp!) and the staff makes it terrible on purpose so you don't bother them by asking for more.

Whatever the reason, we're going with this: Avoid airplane coffee, even for the sheer aesthetics.

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