Results of EPA's tests for contamination in airliners' onboard water. Smartphone SIM card tip

By David Tykol
This item appears on page 2 of the December 2019 issue.

The Schlosskirche (Castle Church, aka All Saints’ Church) in Wittenberg, Germany, is where Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses in 1517. The church also contains his tomb.

Dear Globetrotter:

Welcome to the 526th issue of your monthly foreign-travel magazine, one place where people try to help others, sharing what they’ve learned while doing what they love: traveling.

Covering destinations outside of the US, much of International Travel News is a collection of subscribers’ articles, letters and reports plus their thoughts and comments on travel-related subjects.

Have a question about a place, a product or a procedure? An ITN subscriber may have an answer for you, as most are widely traveled. Ask it here. Or share a tip, a find or a recommendation of your own. Email editor@intltravelnews.com or write to ITN, 2116 28th St., Sacramento, CA 95818. Just opening the mail here can be an adventure!

Each month, the ITN staff gathers news as well, and I share some of it in this column. Case in point, the following is something everyone should be aware of.

Sorting through reports on water samples taken during inspections of US-based commercial aircraft by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from 2012 to 2019, the Hunter College New York City Food Policy Center (at the City University of New York), in partnership with the website DietDetective.com, tried to gauge the quality of the water held in the onboard tanks from which planes’ water, including nonbottled drinking water, is sourced.

According to the federal Aircraft Drinking Water Rule (ADWR), enacted in 2011, airlines must submit samples from their water tanks for testing. They also must disinfect and flush each water tank four times a year OR disinfect and flush once a year but test monthly. That water is tested for contamination, notably by coliform bacteria.

Coliform bacteria are rod-shaped bacteria that usually are harmless but sometimes can cause illness. They are naturally present in many environments and, significantly, are found in fecal matter. The notorious infector E. coli is a coliform bacteria.

Aircraft often fill up on water where they land, and there can be a lot of regional variations in water quality, so one poorly maintained or contaminated water source can infect a plane’s water tank for all subsequent fillings unless regular decontamination is performed. This is a particular concern for international flights, as planes may land in countries with more lax water standards than the US.

Using the EPA reports, in August the Food Policy Center published a study ranking 10 major and 13 regional US airlines on the cleanliness of their onboard water, scoring them on a scale from 5.0 (good) down to 0.0 (very bad). The Water Health Scores were based on 10 criteria, among them ADWR violations, the number of positive results for coliform and/or E. coli, fleet size and overall cooperation with the study.

The airlines with the highest (best) scores were Alaska Airlines and Allegiant Air, each scoring 3.3, indicating “relatively safe water.” Neither airline is a big player in the international market.

Allegiant, it was noted, had a very low number of positive-result samples per aircraft (of 91 aircraft, only two tested positive for E. coli between 2012 and 2019, with none showing other coliform bacteria), and it received the second-highest Water Health Score.

Alaska had the best overall Water Health Score, but, it was noted, it failed to collect follow-up samples on some of the tests it failed, something required by the ADWR.

Other than those top two, US airlines fared incredibly poorly. The big three, Delta Air Lines, American Airlines and United Airlines, scored 1.6, 1.5 and 1.2, respectively. (Note that subsidiary airlines were lumped in with parent airlines, and the big three each operate a number of these smaller airlines.)

During the period covered in the study, Delta had 359 positive test results for coliform bacteria and 15 for E. coli. In addition, they logged 213 ADWR violations, such as failing to conduct routine monitoring or take corrective actions, which was the second-highest number in the study. (JetBlue had an astounding 354 ADWR violations for a fleet of only 254 planes, versus Delta’s 916 planes, and its overall score was 1.0, tying with Spirit Airlines.)

American (with 968 planes) had 660 samples that tested positive for coliform and 23 for E. coli, while United (with 786 planes) had 205 samples positive for coliform and three for E. coli. Regarding ADWR violations, American had 108 and United, 79.

Alarmingly, in regard to the airlines’ cooperation with this study, only Delta was considered “Helpful.” Apart from Hawaiian Airlines, which was described as “Somewhat helpful,” every other airline received a “Not helpful” rating.

Further, the study found that the EPA, which is responsible for holding airlines accountable for their ADWR violations, almost never levied fines for ADWR violations, meaning airlines have rarely been punished for their rule-breaking.

If there is any good news from the study, it is this: there were 69% fewer violations by the major airlines in 2018 than in 2012, the first year the ADWR was in effect. The rule may be having a positive effect.

Non-US airlines are not bound by the ADWR, so the EPA cannot test the water on any foreign aircraft. For all EU-based airlines, the water-quality requirements are legislated by the European Council Directive 98/83/EC. An overall report on violations of that directive was not available at press time.

The Food Policy Center has three bits of advice for flyers, whether in the US or abroad: (1) On board, do not drink water from a bottle that is not sealed. (2) Do not drink coffee or tea on board. (3) Do not wash your hands in aircraft restrooms; instead, use your own hand sanitizer.

A travel tip for smartphone users —

In a letter titled “Smartphone Strategies” (July ’19, pg. 13), Bill Hutchinson of Signal Hill, California, wrote about avoiding high roaming and international calling rates on smartphones by comparing your service provider’s international calling rate against the cost of buying a pay-as-you-go SIM card in the country you are traveling in, for example, Germany.

He wrote, “Because of the number of spam calls I was receiving after 9 p.m. CET (Central European Time), due to the time differences between locations in Europe and the US, I set my Android phone’s blocking mode to ‘on’ between 9 p.m. and 9 a.m. CET so that every call, except those from my contacts list, went to voicemail. This allowed me to get an uninterrupted night’s rest.”

In that same letter, he added, “Since that trip, I have discovered an app called Nights Keeper (nights keeper.com) that makes this even easier. I set up their Do Not Disturb option, where all calls are blocked except those that I filtered onto my ‘white’ list of allowed callers from my contacts list.”

After that was printed, Bill followed up with, “I have since procured a Samsung Galaxy A6 phone with two SIM slots in it, one for my US SIM card (for my US telephone number), the other slot for a foreign SIM card (foreign number). When I need to make a call, I select the outgoing SIM card I want to use. Any incoming call goes to the number the person called. It’s great carrying only one phone instead of two, as I have done in the past.

“The only issue is I couldn’t get Nights Keeper to work on my new phone with both SIM cards in it, so I no longer use Nights Keeper. Instead, I utilize the Galaxy A6’s built-in blocking settings (found under Settings > Notifications > Do Not Disturb > Turn On As Scheduled). I set up a white list with specific people and phone numbers I WILL accept calls from, and for calls not on the white list, I set the time I want the blocking to begin and for the phone to vibrate.

“This way, incoming white-listed calls will function normally, while incoming non-white-listed calls will be silent and go to voicemail.”

CORRECTIONS to note —

• In the feature article “Lending a Hand on a Volunteer Vacation in Rishikesh, India” (Oct. ’19, pg. 20), an inaccurate admission price for the Taj Mahal was printed. The current cost is 1,100 rupees (near $15.50) per person for non-Indian visitors plus an additional 200 rupees for visiting the main mausoleum (optional). We thank Jane B. Holt of Hinesburg, Vermont, for catching that.

• Mary S. Bright submitted a tip regarding the Find My iPhone app, and ITN unnecessarily edited her letter to say, “First, download the app… through the Apple Store” (Nov. ’19, pg. 17). Seeing that, Mary wrote, “You DON’T have to go to the Apple Store; the app is already on the phone.”

• In the Travel Brief “Tracking Wolves in Italy” (Nov. ’19, pg. 57), about 3-day hikes, the correct phone number for the European Safari Company (Nijmegen, Netherlands) is +31 68 3583 623.

Philip Shart of Tamarac, Florida, is a longtime subscriber to ITN. In August, a few days before heading off to a cruise around Italy, which, at 85 and “starting to succumb to the problems that flesh is heir to,” he says will probably be his last, Philip sent us a letter summarizing highlights from the 107 countries he’s visited.

“I love to travel and learn,” he wrote, and I thought I would share just a part of his letter, as I appreciated his reflections:

“Now at over 60 ships, I took my first cruise when I was 17, on Grace Line’s Santa Rosa, and got hooked. At 28, I took my first world cruise, on P&O Lines’ Iberia.

“I loved ships of days past, like the Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth and Caronia (aka Green Goddess). I hate the new megaships. I don’t understand why people go for all the glitz. Do they ever take out time to sit on a deck and watch the wake of the ship fan out and race to the horizon? Do they ever stand at the railing at night and listen to the waves breaking against the hull? Or watch the road of moonlight across the ocean or, if there are clouds, the moonlight playing on the ocean like spotlights?”

Heading somewhere? Take Philip’s lead and don’t forget to make time to be still, observe and reflect.