You may never have wondered this question but how flight attendants go about disposing of unwanted coffee is causing quite a debate at United Airlines and it’s for a pretty disgusting reason that involves human faecal matter.
Unlike in a domestic kitchen, flight attendants can’t simply throw unwanted coffee down the drain… or, at the very least, they’re not supposed to. That’s for two important reasons.
First, when the plane is on the ground and still parked at the gate, the galley sink drains straight out onto the tarmac below which could lead to serious burn injuries to ground workers if hot coffee was poured down the drain.
But even in the air, major aircraft manufacturers Airbus and Boeing would much rather flight attendants didn’t pour coffee down the galley sink. Airplane drainage pipes are incredibly sensitive and anything thicker than water poured down the sink has a nasty habit of coagulating into a thick, curdled mess that completely blocks the pipes.
Instead, a huge number of airlines order flight attendants to pour unwanted liquids like juice, milk and coffee down the lavatory. This is a fairly standardized rule across the industry and modern airplanes are fitted with closed sewage systems which means anything in the waste tanks is emptied once on the ground.
But not so at United Airlines where flight attendants would much rather pour coffee down the galley sink and risk a blockage than pour the pot down the lavatory and face the even more disgusting risk of splashback.
Commenting on recently refreshed procedures for coffee and other thick liquid disposal, the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA-CWA) which represents crew members at the airline told its members:
“We want to be clear, AFA has advocated that the use of lavatory facilities for the disposal of these liquids is to be avoided as a matter of sanitation”.
“These galley items should never be in the aircraft lavatories as a matter of safe food handling guidelines as it pertains to items used to serve food and beverages to passengers,” the memo continued.
But what if the plane is still at the gate and a flight attendant needs to dispose of coffee but doesn’t want to risk injuring a groundworker? In those circumstances, flight attendants will simply pour the entire pot into the trash can.
None of this is new, however, and flight attendants have been reminded to carry on doing what they’ve done for years.
“In most cases, the approach many of us have taken for years, meet United’s safety objectives: that is, avoiding harm to those on the ground and preventing clogged drains,” the union memo reassured flight attendants. “Safety is always our top priority,” it continued.
Thankfully, there are other alternatives slowly becoming available. The most modern of which are ‘galley waste disposal units’ which is a separate sink located in the galley that diverts thick liquids and other small waste into the sewage tanks.
There is, though, a far simpler workaround… it’s called a bucket. Most airlines don’t even offer this option.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.