As travelers adjust to the new rules against carrying liquids onto planes, what about the most essential liquid, water? Before the London terror scare a few weeks ago, water bottles in a variety of shapes and sizes could usually be seen poking out of backpacks, carryalls and totes in departure lounges. Now that passengers must rely solely on what the airlines provide to quench their thirst, there's reason to be concerned that it may not be enough.
On the Friday morning after the new regulations set in, Heather Freeman, a hotel and restaurant publicist from Indian Harbor Beach, Fla., dutifully tossed out her water bottle before boarding a US Airways flight from Washington to Orlando, Fla. She expected to rely on the usual selection of drinks on the beverage cart to get her through the next two hours.
But the flight was turbulent, and the cart came by only once the entire trip. By the time she landed, Freeman was parched.
"The first thing I wanted when I got off [the plane] was a big glass of sparkling water," she said. The experience also made her wonder what might happen on a longer turbulent flight. "Say I had to fly to L.A.," she said. "Could I make it on a cup of water?"
Dehydration can be a real concern for air travelers, especially those with health problems. An airplane cabin at cruising altitude can be drier than the Sahara Desert, with relative humidity between 10 percent and 20 percent.
"You're actually more prone to infection because [the low humidity] dries mucous membranes," said Dr. Marc Siegel, an internist and associate professor of medicine at New York University School of Medicine.
Siegel advises staying away from the caffeinated and alcoholic beverages that take up much of the beverage cart, because they have a diuretic rather than hydrating effect. That means the strict ban on liquids "puts more responsibility and pressure on the airlines to make sure beverage service is early in the flight and includes an option for water," he said.
So what are airlines doing to ensure that fliers have enough to drink during their flights? Not much. In fact, most airlines dismiss the question, pointing out that they always planned refreshments as if customers were not bringing their own. Though none would provide the precise number of drinks they take aboard, airlines say they take into consideration the number of passengers and the length of the flight.
US Airways is stocking extra water since the liquid ban and said it had directed flight attendants to make additional rounds with the beverage carts when possible. United said its flights already have up to 75 percent more beverages onboard than what is normally consumed by its customers. And Delta, which added water after the new security measures were put in place, has "been watching consumption closely," a spokeswoman, Betsy Talton, wrote in an e-mail message, and is returning to normal provisions after discovering the extra supply wasn't being used.
An American Airlines spokesman said the airline has slightly increased the supply of sodas and juices across its system and is adding 2 to 4 liters of extra water per flight. (That's liters per plane, not per person.)
Airlines insist that running out of bottled water is rare, but flight attendants say it isn't that uncommon.
"The supplies are limited, and they can run out," said Pat Friend, president of the Association of Flight Attendants. "And there's not a place to stop for refills." When the bottled water does run out, airlines say they turn to the taps onboard the aircraft. Though the Air Transport Association, a trade group representing the major U.S. airlines, insists it is safe for passengers to drink and brush their teeth with aircraft water, using it is still controversial. "Most flight attendants will not drink it," Friend said.
In 2004, 15 percent of aircraft water in random sampling by the Environmental Protection Agency tested positive for total coliform bacteria. The presence of total coliform, though not indicative of a health risk in and of itself, is a sign that disease-causing organisms could also be in the water.
Even though the EPA has stopped short of advising all passengers not to drink aircraft water, it tells passengers with suppressed immune systems to stick to bottled or canned drinks and also warns that airline tea or coffee is often made with tap water insufficiently heated to ensure safety. Federal regulations on aircraft drinking water may be issued by 2009, the EPA said.
That brings the responsibility for slaking passengers' thirst back to the airlines and airport security officials. So far, even water bottles that appear to have their original seals intact can't be carried on airplanes. Although that may be prudent if screeners can't determine the bottles' origin, it seems logical to ask whether airports and airlines could provide a secure supply of water for sale near the gates -- or even to be given out free at the jetway, the way some airlines offer earphones for their sound systems.
Meanwhile, there is one more issue facing passengers under the new security rules. Because passengers are required to toss or finish their drinks before boarding, many have been chugging 16-ounce bottles of water or venti lattes just before they get on the plane. On Freeman's turbulent flight from Washington to Orlando, that meant extra long lines for the onboard restrooms. "I never saw so many people get up," she said.