Regulating Your In-Flight Water

With all the talk of financial regulation recently, it's nice to see things brought back to basics a little with some news about where regulation began: food. Earlier, Megan posted about regulating ground beef. Today there is additional news that airlines will now have to follow new water rules to ensure it's clean for drinking.

As with all regulation, you might wonder: what is the cost? Reuters reports:

The change, five years in the making and affecting 63 airlines and 7,300 planes, will replace interim systems for monitoring bacteria and other pathogens that could sicken passengers.

The EPA expects the annual cost to the industry to be about $7 million. Airlines have 18 months to develop maintenance plans that comply with the standards.

That breaks down to roughly $1000 per plane, according to the numbers it provides. That's not much when divided among the thousands of passengers most planes carry in one year. So I wouldn't expect to see your ticket prices increase too substantially with this regulation.

Yet, most airlines are in no shape to take on any additional costs. I'm sure they're not crazy about the change. This raises a few interesting questions:

First, what happens if a plane offers only bottled water instead? Could it then forgo the systems that this regulation requires it puts in place? I talked to a spokesperson at the EPA who informed me that airlines would still have to comply with these guidelines, even if serving bottled water.

The follow-up question, then, is whether that might cause airlines to move away from bottled water. Over the past few years, I've noticed more airlines using bottles instead of their tap. If they're already required to make that expenditure, ensuring that they have clean water -- at least by Uncle Sam's standards -- might they want to capitalize on that forced cost? It seems that this would be a rather obvious cost savings measure.

Finally, what took the EPA so long? Since 9/11 you haven't been allowed to bring bottles of water through security. That means you had to either pay exorbitant bottled water prices in the terminal or apparently drink potentially tainted, unregulated water. As cynical as I am about regulation, if they aren't going to let people bring their own water on a plane, then I have trouble with their allowing airlines to serve passengers dirty water instead.