Airlines agree to clean water standards
An EPA test last year found bacteria on 15 percent of flights
Twenty-four U.S. airlines have signed agreements with the government subjecting the carriers to fines of up to $27,500 if they fail to adopt tougher safeguards for monitoring and disinfecting the drinking water served to passengers.
The deals with 11 major domestic airlines and 13 smaller airlines -- including Hawaiian, Aloha and Continental Micronesia Airlines -- are intended to reduce disease-carrying bacteria in drinking water on planes, the Environmental Protection Agency said yesterday.
An EPA investigation last year found total coliform bacteria in 15 percent of the 327 airplanes the agency reviewed at 19 airports. Total coliform is usually harmless, but it is an indicator that other disease-causing organisms could be in the water.
Of the 327 plane water supplies tested, only two tested positive for E. coli, a bacteria that indicates contamination from the waste products of humans or animals, said John Merkle, an EPA senior scientist who participated in testing water from the airplanes.
The presence of E. coli is considered to raise the possibility people could get sick from drinking the water, Merkle said. However, the presence of any coliform bacteria in the water "is a form of failure" for the water supply, he said.
The administrative order says the airlines have failed to comply fully with the Safe Drinking Water Act. Future failures to comply could bring penalties of up to $27,500 for each violation.
Instead of fining the airlines, the EPA is requiring "putting in place framework to safeguard public health while bringing airlines under more stringent regulations," Merkle said.
The EPA suggests that airline passengers with compromised immune systems drink only bottled or canned beverages on flights. Coffee and tea on the planes are made at temperatures too low to kill bacteria if they are present, according to guidelines on the EPA Web site.
While most of its members signed the agreement, the Air Transport Association said drinking water found on airlines is generally as safe as the municipal water sources that supply it.
"We think the drinking water on aircraft is safe to drink and has been," said Katherine Andrus, a spokeswoman for the airlines' trade group. But she said the airlines, while seeking improvements, partly wanted to set the record straight.
"It will generate a tremendous amount of monitoring data, which we believe will establish that there is no systematic problem with the aircrafts' drinking water," she said. "We don't think that EPA's sample results provided enough meaningful data to draw any conclusions."
The agreements require the airlines to regularly monitor and clean their aircraft, and maintain accurate records and details of all their drinking water operations for each aircraft.
Hawaiian Airlines already sanitizes its airplane water systems every month and has an independent lab test for bacteria, spokesman Keoni Wagner said. "We've never had a positive result for any coliform," he said.
Aloha Airlines also disinfects its water systems monthly, spokesman Stu Glauberman said.
The Associated Press and Star-Bulletin reporter
Diana Leone contributed to this report.