How safe is your coffee, tea water onboard?

Sunday March 4 2018

Have you ever asked yourself whether the water

Have you ever asked yourself whether the water used aboard flights to brew your coffee is safe for consumption?  

By MICHAEL OTIENO
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I am far from being a coffee connoisseur but I know that I like my coffee black, strong and sugarless.

When on board a flight, there is a ritual about my coffee.

First, if it is a regional airline like Ethiopian, RwandAir or Kenya Airways, I will hardly interrogate much as expectedly the coffee will be from the carrier’s home country — meaning it meets my taste bud standards.

If the above does not apply, I inquire about the coffee origins. I always look forward to having my cup of coffee, so much so that I always take water to cleanse my mouth after a meal to enjoy the coffee better.

I savour the coffee aroma as the crew brews it and it wafts through the cabin.

And when I finally get served my cup, I take a long deep breathe off the top of the cup before taking a generous sip, holding it in my mouth a little while before swallowing. I get a real kick out of my cup of coffee.

But unless it is a special brand such as “Black Insomnia” or “Death Wish,” most of the coffee brand served on board do not give you that needed kick.

So, last week on Qatar Airways’ new business class dubbed the QSuite, I had one such intense coffee moment, and I had to ask about the origins of the coffee.

The flight purser said it was a mix of Kenyan and Colombian beans. Good coffee never fails to leave a lasting impression on me.

The reason why I am going on about coffee on board is; have you ever asked yourself whether the water used aboard flights to brew your coffee is safe for consumption?

Most crew will swear they use bottled water to brew the tea, coffee or the warm drinking water, however, there is nothing barring then from using the onboard tap water.

At all airports in cities around the world, aircraft get supplied with ground water.

This means that onboard tank water is picked from multiple airports and cities around the world, all with varying water safety standards.

During a flight, this tank water is consumed by passengers in multiple ways either in hot beverages and soups, for reconstituting baby food, or as a warm glass of drinking water after a meal.

Of concern though is that aircraft water storage tanks happen to be very conducive breeding grounds for microorganisms, both pathogenic and non-pathogenic.

The US Environmental Protection Agency has in the past randomly sampled 158 passenger aircraft tank water and found 13 per cent of them contained with coliform and E.coli.

Such discoveries led to regulation which requires airlines to clean out their tanks and test their public water systems for the presence of coliform and the potentially deadly E. coli bacteria at least once a year and up to four times annually.

But even with the first world regulatory advantages, there are still cases of failures in airlines meeting the onboard water quality standards.

On a global level, the World health Organisation through its Guide to Hygiene and Sanitation in Aviation has issued standards for water safety and drinking water quality standards for airports and airline operators.

However when it comes to East Africa, implementation and monitoring of these quality standards might just be an exercise on paper as it is entirely at the discretion of local authorities.

Industry body IATA has the Drinking Water Quality Pool programme, which is more of a voluntary initiative by a number of airlines to share audits on drinking-water quality around the world.

Enjoy your hot beverage on board but if I were you, I would stop using it for onboard water for baby food or drink unless it’s from the bottle.

Michael Otieno an aviation consultant and travel writer based in Nairobi. Twitter: @mosafariz; Email: [email protected]