Twenty-four airlines have signed agreements with the government subjecting the carriers to fines of up to $27,500 if 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 are intended to reduce disease-carrying bacteria in drinking water on planes, the Environmental Protection Agency said Wednesday.
An EPA investigation last year found total coliform bacteria in 15 percent of the 327 airlines 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.
The administrative order says the airlines have failed to fully comply with the Safe Drinking Water Act. Failure to comply in the future could mean penalties of up to $27,500 for each violation.
While most of its members signed the agreement, the Air Transport Association said drinking water found on airline 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 their aircraft by collecting total coliform samples from at least one galley and one bathroom from every aircraft at least once a year. At least 25 percent of an airlines’ fleet must be monitored every three months.
The airlines must provide, within 45 days, details of all their drinking water operations for each aircraft, and then regularly disinfect those water systems and water transfer equipment. Each of the airlines signed a separate 60-page agreement with EPA.
Disinfecting the water systems must be done at least once every three months. Water trucks, carts, cabinets and hoses must be cleaned at least once a month. After disinfection, airlines must wait until after a day of flight services before checking for bacteria again.
Test results showing total coliform and other bacteria such as E. coli or fecal coliform that cause diarrheal illnesses must be reported to the EPA no later than 5 p.m. EST of the following business day.
The agreements cover AirTran Airways, Alaska Airlines, Aloha Airlines, American Airlines, America West, ATA Airlines, Champion Air, Continental Airlines, Continental Micronesia, Falcon Air Express, Frontier Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, Miami Air International, Midwest Airlines, North American Airlines, Northwest Airlines, Pace Airlines, Ryan International Airlines, Spirit Airlines, Sun Country Airlines, United Airlines, US Airways, USA 3000 Airlines, and World Airways.
The agency said it was still negotiating agreements with Omni Air International, Delta, JetBlue and Southwest airlines.