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Caution: Water on board

See? Scare tactics work. Here are the facts of the matter. Most airlines these days board only a limited supply of bottled water on each flight. The ratio of bottled water to tap available depends on where you sit.

See? Scare tactics work.

Here are the facts of the matter. Most airlines these days board only a limited supply of bottled water on each flight. The ratio of bottled water to tap available depends on where you sit.

  • First Class: 100% bottled water
  • Business Class: 50% bottled/50% tap
  • Economy: 25% bottled/75% tap

The airlines say there isn’t enough room on the airplane to stock bottled water for every passenger. With the disappearance of in-flight meals, one might imagine there’d be plenty of room for water, so maybe it has more to do with shrinking airline budgets.

The tap water comes form the water tank, which is filled before each flight with water from the local water supply. This is the water that is used for coffee, tea, the lavatory sink, and the pitcher on the beverage cart. It is regular old, run-of-the-mill tap water: the same treated H2O that comes out of your faucets at home — but with a twist.

The twist is the holding tanks. Some recent, highly publicized tests have found high bacteria and fecal counts in those tanks. Other, less well-publicized tests show normal readings for contaminants, but ask any mechanic who has stripped down a water tank, and you’ll hear that it is not a pretty sight.

I have been a flight attendant for 16 years, and I believe that there are legitimate concerns about water on board. Here are some tips that might help.

1. Don’t go overboard
Hydration is good, but over-hydration is wasteful. A one-liter bottle of water is sufficient for all flights under eight hours. Any more will have you drinking your neighbor’s share and running to the not-so-sanitary lavatory all too often (but that is a whole other article).

2. Tap it
If you are in good health and are really thirsty, don’t be afraid to drink tap water now and then. In fact, many doctors encourage their patients to drink tap water as a way of building up their immune systems. More complications arise from dehydration than drinking tap water, anyway.

If you absolutely, positively have to have bottled water, then you’d better bring your own. I don’t condone it, but sometimes flight attendants do refill water bottles from the tap. The crews call it “Galley Springs.” Don’t bother asking whether you’re getting real mineral water; tap water has minerals in it, too, you know.

4. Get bubbly
Ask for sparkling mineral water. It is from a natural source and can be a refreshing change from still water. And there’s no chance of a tap-water substitution.

5. Don’t fool yourself
If it’s in a pitcher, it’s from the tap. I have never seen a flight attendant pour bottled water into a pitcher. Lemonade and fruit punch mixes also get the tap-water treatment.

6. Mix it up
A nutritionist once told me that if I mixed water with one-quarter cranberry juice or apple juice, I would retain the water longer and receive more of the benefits. I don’t know if that’s true, but ever since I started doing it, I have had considerably less jet lag and have woken up feeling more energetic the next morning.

7. International caveats
Airlines fill their water tanks with local water, so be extra careful when you are in areas with known water problems. Stick with the bottled stuff and be vigilant. Even brush your teeth with it. In this particular case, a quick water fix is not worth a case of “Delhi belly” or “Montezuma’s Revenge,” believe me.

8. Skip the coffee break
Don’t drink the coffee or tea on those international flights, either, as the water on board doesn’t reach the required temperature to kill off all the bacteria. Skip the ice cubes, too, as they may also have been made from contaminated water.

9. Watch for cons
Always examine the bottled water you buy in foreign countries. A while back, I watched some young boys in the Bombay airport fill up used bottles from the airport faucets, then melt the plastic seals back in place so the bottles would appear to be unopened.

10. Plan ahead
It is 2 a.m. as I write this, and I am in a European hotel staring at a bottle of water priced at $13 U.S. A fierce battle is being waged between my thirst and my cheap side.

As for me, I always drink tap water at home, but when I fly, it’s bottled water or nothing. “Everything in moderation” is generally good advice, but if you fly all the time, as I do, you shouldn’t subject yourself to the elements all the time.

All this water talk has made me incredibly thirsty, and my thirst has conquered my cheap side. I crack open the bottle of $13 water, but I pour it into a fancy red-wine glass. After all, the water is more expensive than most of the wines I drink.

Refreshing, no bouquet, and no taste whatsoever. Which is good, I guess.


James Wysong has worked as a flight attendant with two major international carriers during the past fifteen years. He is the author of the "The Plane Truth: Shift Happens at 35,000 Feet" and "The Air Traveler's Survival Guide." For more information about James or his books, please or .

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