Up in the Air: I. How Airports Coerce Sales of Bottled Water

On my current trip to South Dakota, I felt thirsty as I waited for my plane. I walked to one end of the terminal and did not see a water fountain. I walked to the other end and did not see one either. I was sure I had missed it, so I repeated a loop around each of the 12 gates between security and the end of the terminal. No water fountains.

There were however merchants selling bottled water. I was stubborn enough to go into the men’s restroom and run sink water into my hands for a rebellious slurp to slake my thirst, but most everyone else was lining up to buy bottled water.

In my youth, airports had massive phone banks. Pittsburgh took pride in having the largest in the world. As those disappeared, we were essentially forced to decide between not being able to make a call or purchasing our own personal cell phone. The same process is now forcing us to buy bottled water, which is (1) A ripoff (2) A contributor to landfills overflowing with plastic bottles. A small example of how the disappearance of shared public amenities drives personal consumption.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

15 thoughts on “Up in the Air: I. How Airports Coerce Sales of Bottled Water”

  1. Keith, you're obviously not with the program. An airport is a company held accountable by its jurisdiction to be cheap or if possible profitable. Water fountains, though the cheapest way to deliver water by far, would be paid for by the airport itself, while water in bottles is profitable through the rents it can charge to concessionaires. If the airport's revenues go down, [caution: outrage alert] taxes will be higher; are you suggesting an abomination like higher taxes is somehow mitigated by frivolities like cheaper water for travelers and less environmental damage from water bottles? That any real American would think of drinking socialized water from a fountain rather than good private-sector Dasani? (Your confession on this score has been noted, by the way. If we catch you getting on a bus or walking on a public sidewalk when you could drive, you may be in line for re-education.)

  2. Mike…I am filled with appropriate shame and will be leaving the country post-haste. Ta!

  3. Keith – I generally bring an empty container when I fly to fill up with cheap, environmentally friendly, tasty tap water after I pass through security.

    So, which country shall we emigrate to?

  4. If you go up to one of the fast food counters and ask for a cup of water, can you get one for free? I know they all sell bottled water now, so they have an incentive not to offer water for free, but it might be worth a try.

    I've also seen airlines not offering any free beverages on cross-country flights (well, maybe an ounce glass of water), which seems like it might actually be dangerous (though I suppose there's the restroom sink in the airplane, too).

  5. Of course the ludicrous continuing ban on carrying liquids through security keeps you from bringing your own water from home, or from somewhere cheaper than the airport. I suspect that relatively few people know that you can bring an empty bottle (even one that used to be a bottle filled with bought water) through security – and probably some security guards somewhere won't let you. So the airports' high prices for water (even Dasani, which is basically tap water rather than special spring water) are reinforced.

    I am well prepared to let the taxpayers (including me) pay for my water… or make it up in the various large and never explained service fees and surcharges, so it's just people using the airport who subsidize me.

  6. Here in San Jose, they've just opened a huge new terminal at SJC with lots of water fountains, most right by the restrooms. It's lovely. Hopefully you'll get a chance to fly through here and enjoy the new facilities while improving, at least a tiny bit, your faith in humanity.

  7. Keith,

    Have you considered the possibility that the problem is that you're in South Dakota and they never considered the need for people to drink when they designed the airport?

  8. You have your causality reversed on the cell phone. People bought cell phones because there were plenty of places without pay phones, say your broken down car in the middle of nowhere. People also bought cell phones because when somebody wanted to call you, dialing all of the pay phones you might be close to is rather time consuming. The proliferation of cell phones made payphones unprofitable, leading to their demise.

  9. Jon S: Yours is a compelling, but non-competing explanation. I did not own a cell phone until 4 years ago, when my son became ill when I was traveling and I could not find a pay phone to call home (which comes about in part as you note, because many other people have bought cell phones). That is literally the one and only reason I bought a cell phone.

  10. Indeed, they're non-competing: When one technology supplants another, the early adopters chose it because they wanted it, the late adopters chose it because the former technology is on the way out because it can't hack the competition. Happens all the time.

    If pay phones were still money makers, there's actually no obstacle to putting them in airports, or wherever; There are still companies that will install them, it's just that the market has shrunk dramatically. I suppose you could artificially boost that market by installing cell phone blockers, but that wouldn't be very popular.

    The first time I ran into that airport without water fountains was in Japan. They're showing up here, too? I wonder if it's really driven by sanitation concerns? Water fountains ARE known vectors for infectious diseases.

  11. Pay phones still exist in hospitals/clinics, banks, and a few other locations where the management MUST make it possible for literally everyone to make a call. And geographical locations where cell phone service is absent or iffy.

    At O'Hare, many people know to bring an empty water bottle through security and then fill it up on the other side (where there are also still drinking fountains, but who knows for how long?)

  12. Brent Bellmore is right that sanitation issues are increasingly important for airport managers — in fact, I've been told that the most frequent topic of discussion at airport operations conferences is the care and cleaning of public restrooms, for reasons of both public perception and public hygiene. See, for example, http://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/hygien… although this is aimed more at airline issues than airport ones.

  13. MCD: YOU DO NOT "emigrate to a country"!!!!!!! From the context, I take it that you are considering emigrating from the U.S. To which country do you think you might IMMIGRATE?

  14. There are still payphones in the airports (OK, not that many) that I've been through in the past few years, but they're configured in ways that make buying a cellphone a pretty good idea. If you want to spend a buck a minute and up, go for it.

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