When nature calls at 35,000 feet


The Federal Aviation Administration has just closed the comment period for the flying public regarding the size of airline passenger seats.
They were focused on the wrong seats. The FAA should have been looking at airplane loos. In-flight restrooms have become so small and cramped that they should be equipped with shoehorns.
In 1986, Congress passed legislation requiring the Department of Transportation to create and enforce regulations ensuring that people with disabilities were treated without discrimination in a manner consistent with the safe operation of aircraft and trains. A key part of that task was to make sure airliners had restrooms that were large enough to accommodate disabled passengers.
There was a significant caveat, however. The rules focused only on wide-body aircraft. There was an assumption that the larger the aircraft, the longer the flights, the more pressing the need for facilities. This sly “carve-out” in aircraft standards meant that airlines suffered a far smaller economic penalty by giving up several seats in order to make room for the wider restrooms. Single-aisle aircraft that carried fewer passengers and flew shorter routes were exempted from the regulation.
And now, in an era when jumbo jets like the 747 are being retired and smaller, more fuel-efficient, narrow-body jets are making a comeback, those restrooms can still be smaller than a phone booth. (Does anyone remember phone booths?) One airline industry survey reported that narrow-body lavatories are often as much as 10 inches narrower than they were a decade ago.

The current generation of non-jumbos is so aerodynamically efficient that they can fly the same long-distance routes as 747s. These narrow-body aircraft are capable of international flights of thousands of miles. In the pursuit of efficiency, even many cockpit crews have been reduced, from three to two. Everything is now designed to be far more cost-effective for airlines facing woes ranging from staff shortages to soaring energy costs. That means using every inch of aircraft real estate. And that in turn has meant removing precious inches from the restrooms.
For those with special needs, this often means not being able to go while going overseas. The issue has not gone unnoticed. One cabin-design firm called AirGo has proposed a unique triangular-shaped airline lavatory. The company claims that it gives passengers who have reduced mobility the ability to wheel in and safely shift from wheelchair to toilet.
Refusing to accept the status quo, disabled passengers filed suit several years ago, demanding that narrow-body aircraft be mandated to have restrooms they could access, and new federal rules will require at least one larger restroom per aircraft to accommodate them. The airlines aren’t happy, because in this era of Covid recovery, they claim the mandate has the potential to cost them billions of dollars in revenue as they remove seats to make room for the wider privy. In the meantime, fewer than 5 percent of U.S. commercial carriers’ narrow-body passenger aircraft have restrooms large enough to be accessible to people who need to use wheelchairs on board, according to Washington’s Government Accountability Office.
While the FAA requested public input on airline seats, the agency made it a point to say they’re not interested in whether you find current cabin accommodations comfortable. They only wanted to hear about safety factors. “The FAA is not requesting comments regarding matters . . . such as how the dimensions of passenger seats might relate to passenger comfort or convenience,” the agency stated. We can assume they believe the free market will define “comfort.”
An industry expert, Sebastien Weber, chief executive of Safran Aerosystems, told the Wall Street Journal several years ago, “On airplanes, it is all about how you use the real estate.” He should know. His California company builds toilets for aircraft.
It is a now cliché to lament the long-lost golden days of aviation, when men arrived planeside in suits and fedoras and women were dressed to the nines. Today it’s cargo shorts and muscle shirts, and passengers who wear jackets and ties are viewed with smirks as flight attendants remind us that there is an extra charge for barely edible snacks. So we shouldn’t be surprised that airline restrooms are shrinking, our seats and amenities are considered commodities, and we are left to wonder if there will be room to go when we have to go.

Ronald J. Rosenberg has been an attorney for 42 years, concentrating in commercial litigation and transactions, and real estate, municipal, zoning and land use law. He founded the Garden City law firm Rosenberg Calica & Birney in 1999.