Why You Should Think Twice Before Drinking Airplane Coffee

Ted McGrath/Thrillist
Ted McGrath/Thrillist

Airlines struggle in the food and beverage department. Their job is to get people from Point A to Point B, not provide a gastronomically-enriching experience at high-altitude. JetBlue’s delightful cheese plate notwithstanding, what you eat and drink on a plane tends to be underwhelming at best, inedible at worst.

And then there’s airplane coffee, which has a particularly heinous reputation. “There’s a stereotype about airplane coffee because it’s true,” says Brian Sumers, Skift’s Aviation Business Editor. “Almost all airline coffee is bad. A lot of it is disgusting.”

Not only is the coffee often sludge-like, its cleanliness is questionable at best. Who knows what’s floating around 35,000 feet in the air?

Dr. Charles Platkin, PhD and executive director of the Hunter College NYC Food Policy Center, is one expert giving airplane water major side-eye. According to findings from his 2018 survey on airline food, the doc says “it’s probably best to avoid drinking water from the tap on a plane, which also means staying away from coffee and tea” because “there are a couple of reliable researchers who believe there may be harmful bacteria in airline water.” 

The water is just plain terrible

Flying is a dirty business, and water quality is particularly fraught. Go too deep down the rabbit hole and you’ll find articles confirming your worst germaphobe fears. In 2012, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that about 12% of U.S. commercial planes (1 in 12) is contaminated by bacteria, specifically coliform, an indicator of E. coli. Where does E. coli come from? Poop.

Jennifer Johnson, a flight attendant who preferred to keep the name of her major airline employer off the record, recognizes consumers’ concerns over airline tap water. “The stereotype exists because of the way planes are cleaned and taken care of,” she says. “Many passengers and even some flight attendants do believe that our coffee water is not clean and that it is recycled water.”

Johnson, bless her heart, suggests that the coffee or tea is hot enough to kill any lingering germs, but anyone obsessive compulsive about cleanliness will tell you this is, frankly, wrong. Boiling water at 212 degrees Fahrenheit can kill most bacteria and microbes, but that's not an option seven miles in the air.

Sippin' on that sewage | Matej Kastelic/shutterstock

Still, if people were constantly dying from drinking airplane poo-water, you’d best believe you’d hear about it. The hype surrounding plane water may not be all it’s cracked up to be.

A few years back, the EPA implemented a rule about airline water known as the Aircraft Drinking Water Rule, jointly governed by the EPA, Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The ADWR plan requires routine disinfection and flushing of a plane’s water system -- storage tanks, piping and plumbing, treatment equipment, and any additional fixtures supplying water to passengers or crew -- plus personnel training and regular sampling of water. In the event that the airline carrier and crews detect coliform bacteria or E. coli, or fails to meet standards like routine disinfection, passengers must be notified between 24 hours and 72 hours of the flight.

Coffee also tastes bad because airplanes screw with our senses

Real talk: A standard airline is not going to splurge on “craft” anything, let alone coffee. Give up your pipe dream of an artisanal pour-over before you even take off.

“Traditionally, coffee served on airplanes is drip filter coffee, which tends to have a stewed and bitter taste,” says James Vaile, president of Thai Airways – North & South America. “On longer haul flights, the coffee can sit stewing for longer periods and therefore can dampen even the best coffee experience.” It doesn’t help that the plane’s environment plays a big factor in how a coffee tastes.

“Pressurized cabins and high altitudes take a toll on traditional brewing dynamics like brewing temperature -- not to mention your taste buds,” says Milos. “You're experiencing 8,000 feet of air pressure, which reduces your perception of sweetness and saltiness. The humidity is also lower, by 5 to 15%, so your olfactory system is not working as it normally would.”

Think about a time you had a cold and couldn’t taste chicken soup because your nose was blocked up. Smell makes up the bulk of a sense of taste and at cruising altitude, our noses are basically as busted as a head cold: We lose up to 30 percent of our perception flavor, says Milos.

Because of air pressure, water heats differently on a plane -- it can’t reach 212°, remember? — which also affects flavor. “Certain blends of coffee need higher temps to bring out the full flavor of the roast,” says Vaile. What you get is “bland, somewhat watery tasting coffee in the air.”

There’s hope, maybe: Coffee is getting better

Airlines aren’t oblivious to their coffee shortcomings, and some are working on improving their caffeine game.

“No matter how good the beans, you simply cannot have high-quality coffee without quality water,” says Giorgio Milos, a master barista for illy North America, United Airlines’ coffee partner. When United partnered with illy, it changed everything from the beans to the water to the service. One move was to change how the water was treated, swapping out chemical disinfectants like chlorine dioxide for an ozone disinfection system.

“United also stopped using carbon water filters, as tests revealed they can cause more harm than good by harboring microbes and reducing chlorine levels, degrading water quality,” says Milos.

Skift’s Sumers vouches for espresso-based drinks, especially as planes install espresso machines. “I enjoy the coffee on SAS, Austrian, and a few others,” he says, “but these machines are very expensive so you don’t see them much. When they’re on a plane, it is usually in business class.”

If you're not in biz class, you're getting a bland-tasting coffee, at best; at worst, you risk channeling your inner Gwyneth Paltrow-in-Contagion. Your best bet for an illness-free cup is grabbing it before or after your flight.

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Natalie Compton is a contributor to Thrillist.