Why Does Airplane Coffee Taste So Bad?

updated Jun 4, 2019
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(Image credit: ume-y)

No matter what kind of coffee drinker you are, I think we can all agree on the fact that airplane coffee generally falls into the category of “bad coffee.”

Why is the coffee served in the air so terrible, and what can you do about it?

Is it the coffee beans?

The first place we usually check for low-quality coffee is with the beans. But in this case, the beans themselves aren’t necessarily the problem. Sure, there was a time when airlines could get away with serving low-grade beans, but as the appreciation for coffee has grown, airlines have had to think about their coffee game.

Some airlines have started to advertise the specific coffee brands they serve, in the hopes it will let the customer know that they put some care into their coffee. Hailing from the Pacific Northwest, it’s no real surprise that Alaska Airlines serves Starbucks on board, and this year Delta joined that list as well. On United Airlines, you will be treated to Hawaiian Kona Blend, and on American Airlines, there will be Rainforest Alliance Certified coffee from Java City in your cup. Flying on JetBlue? You’ll get a cup of Dunkin’ Donuts, but much to Agent Dale Cooper’s dismay, no free donuts (which would be the only way that type of coffee would be acceptable).

Of course those American-based airlines have nothing on Air Asiana, where baristas on board make pour-over coffee; the Mile High Chemex Club, so to say.

But still — who knows when those beans were ground, and how long they’ve been sitting around.

So, what is the problem? Start with the water.

A 2012 Environmental Protection Agency report testing water from commercial airlines in the United States found that 12% of them tested positive for coliform, indicating that the water could contain other harmful bacteria. That’s essentially one out of every 10 airplanes. That water quality even has flight attendants and pilots skipping the tea and coffee service.

What’s a coffee drinker to do?

Some people (myself included) have a No Airplane Coffee Ever policy, some going as far as equating airplane coffee to “a pot of hot water that a dead mouse has slowly been rotting in for days.” Since it’s not the 1990s anymore, that glorious time when you could still bring your own thermos on board, making your own batch beforehand and bringing it along isn’t an option.

For a while, the coffee-devoted crowd was brewing their own coffee on board, bringing beans and a grinder and simply ordering hot water. But that option is out now as well, since the FAA has banned brewing devices on board. In fact, because of a mid-flight Aeropress incident, a man was banned for life from US Airways.

That leaves you with either drinking a good cup of coffee before you leave home, or grabbing one at the airport, assuming that your departure airport has a good coffee selection. Of all places, you might be surprised to know that specialty roaster Cartel Coffee Lab has an outpost at the Sky Harbor airport in Phoenix.

Of course, if you’ve got a very long international flight (I’m talking trans-Atlantic, trans-Pacific style), you just might have enough time to make a cold brew: invest in a nut milk bag (basically a reusable bag with really fine mesh, which lets the water in to mix with your grounds) and bring a water bottle and coffee grounds. Just be sure to get your water in the airport, after you have passed security and before you board the plane, to get around the water issue. Or get a Hario cold brew water bottle. Your drink will be ready just about before you land, depending on the length of your flight.

Your best bet, though? Take a few chocolate-covered espresso beans with you for a caffeinated snack, and track down a good cafe or roaster in your arrival destination. It will be the excuse to discover a new place, and maybe even bring some locally roasted beans back with you when you head home.