To the uninitiated it would seem that accessible airline lavatories should have roughly the same access features as those on the terra firma. Unfortunately that’s not the case, and this lack of comparable access has caught many a first-time flyer off guard. In this case, forewarned is forearmed, so here’s the straight poop on the requirements for accessible airline lavatories, as well as a few tips to find models that more closely fit your access needs.
Under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), all twin aisle US aircraft built after 1992 are required to have at least one accessible lavatory. The law further requires the accessible lavatory to include a door lock, an accessible call button and grab bars. There are no specifications about the height or placement of the grab bars or the toilet; however, in place of those specifications are performance standards.
These performance standards describe the access in non-architectural terms. For example, instead of stating that the toilet shall be a certain height and there shall be a certain amount of space in the lavatory, the regulations merely state, “This lavatory shall permit a qualified individual with a disability to enter, maneuver within as necessary to use all lavatory facilities and leave, by means of the aircraft’s on-board wheelchair.”
These performance standards are ambiguous at best, and they lead to a lot of confusion, especially when passengers expect accessible airline lavatories to be exactly like those found in the terminals.
In practice, most airlines interpret the regulations to mean there should be enough room for a wheelchair-user to perform an unassisted front transfer to the toilet from the on-board wheelchair. Space is at a premium and you won’t find any five-foot turn-around spaces in most on-board accessible lavatories. Additionally many are not large enough to accommodate an attendant,
There are suggested guidelines for on-board accessible lavatories; however they are only suggested, and not required. The airlines can choose to follow the suggested guidelines or opt to adopt their own architectural standards that fall within the parameters of the performance standards in the ACAA. In short, there’s a wide range of accessible airline lavatories out there.
Unfortunately there’s not one simple solution to the problem. Of course, the first hurtle is to realize that this access void exists, and by reading this article you have accomplished that. To quote an old adage, “Knowledge is power”.
Many folks attack the problem from a user standpoint, and take measures to help them avoid using the on-board lavatories. This could include taking several shorter connecting flights so they can avoid the on-board lavatory all together; or following complicated — and dangerous — pre-flight regimes that limit food and liquid intake. Other folks opt to cath for the flight, or to rely on adult diapers or pads. There are many creative approaches out there, and some involve a combination of methods.
Other people take a more systematic approach to the problem, and look for flights that offer better — and larger — on-board accessible lavatories. Many configurations of the 787 Dreamliner have some ultra-spacious accessible lavatories, and some of the newer Airbus 320 models offer space-flex lavatories that are twice the size of standard lavatories. But how do you find the airlines that have these configurations?
A good resource is www.seatguru.com, a website which contains seating diagrams for most of the major airlines. Although not all accessible lavatories are marked, it’s obvious from the diagrams which aircraft have larger lavatories. The airlines that are more proactive about their access even have the wheelchair pictogram on their accessible lavatories. Although it’s not a be-all-and-end-all resource, Seat Guru does give passengers a better overview of the range of accessible options out there.
The bottom line is, access varies from carrier to carrier; so don’t be afraid to check with the airline directly if you have a question about the accessibility of their on-board lavatories.
And no matter which carrier you choose, make sure to confirm that an on-board wheelchair is aboard the plane before takeoff. Even if you’re on an aircraft with the most accessible lavatory around, it’s a moot point if you can’t get to it. It takes only a minute to check, and that’s 60 seconds of pre-flight time well spent.