Malcolm and DeborahMalcolm Cumming and Deborah Livesey

{Not So} Accessible Onboard Lavatories

My wife I and took an Alaska Airlines flight from Seattle to San Antonio in April of 2014 for what we thought would be a nice little vacation. The last thing I wanted to do was break my wife’s arm, but that’s what happened as I tried to get her through the narrow door of the plane’s on-board lavatory. It wasn’t intentional of course, but there is not enough room inside for a helper and a disabled person to be in the plane’s lavatory at the same time. So rather than stepping in first and safely pulling her in, I tried to move her in backwards. That turned out to be a big mistake.

On this particular flight to San Antonio we deliberately chose our seats at the rear of the aircraft so that Deborah’s aisle seat would be directly opposite a lavatory. She needs me or another caregiver to do transfers, but with less than 25 inches between sink and the opposite wall, even though we are both slender, there is not enough space to trade places. So, with the toilet located at the back of the lavatory, I had to move Deborah in backwards. With my arms wrapped under hers as I “eased” her in, the narrow entrance crimped her elbows inward until her arm bone cracked just below her shoulder. How quickly our lovely vacation came to an abrupt halt.

Since then, I’ve learned all about how inaccessible lavatories are on virtually all airlines. Turns out, our accident on that Alaskan flight could have happened on any airline, and very likely often does. Single-aisle aircraft such as Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 are not, and never have been, required to provide anything even remotely accessible for persons with physical disabilities. To placate the public, who are quite familiar with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), virtually all commercial aircraft post those familiar little blue and white “Wheelchair Accessible” signs on all lavatory doors. Doing so has been highly successful in stopping ADA-aware passengers from asking why on-board airplane lavatories do not provide accommodation for the disabled. When I have asked why they post WC Accessible signs on non-accessible bathrooms, the response has been, (I kid you not), we make our inaccessible lavatories accessible by providing grab bars inside. The misleading signage, together with a poorly designed grab bar that blocked the full opening of the inadequately sized door, were among the contributing factors in our arm-breaking accident.

We like to travel. My wife, Deborah, and I have flown all over the United States and a great many times to Europe over the last 35 years. Deborah has chronic-progressive MS and is not able to independently stand or walk. After our San Antonio debacle, my next great idea was that we would fly only on wide-body, double aisle airplanes. The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), passed by Congress in 1986 stipulates that airplanes with 2 aisles must have at least one “accessible” lavatory. The rules implementing the ACAA define such a lavatory as one that “…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.” Sounds like all a non-ambulatory passenger who would like to use the loo during a long flight need do is book a flight on a wide-body aircraft. But, that’s easier said than done.

Back in the early 1990s, authors of the ACAA rules felt that accessible lavatories were most important for long coast-to-coast routes that were handled by the double aisle heavyweights such as 747s, 767s, DC10s and L1011s. These days, there are merely a handful of routes that are intermittently served by large aircraft. Single-aisle 737s and A320s provide the backbone of the U.S. air transportation system. If you want to fly anywhere domestically, you’re going to be flying on an inaccessible single-aisle airplane. Circumventing the problem of unusable lavatories by booking travel only on wide-bodies is not an available option.

Even when one does fly on a wide-body (such as trans-Atlantic or trans-Pacific) aircraft, the ACAA compliant “accessible” lavatory is seldom usable by anyone unable to independently stand and walk. The typical accommodation made by airlines has been to provide one, rather standard, lavatory that has a slightly above-average width door that allows the on-board aisle chair to nose through. There’s none of this “maneuver within as necessary to use all lavatory facilities” stuff. The disabled passenger is left sitting on a minimalist chair, directly facing an opposing toilet, to which there is no way to transfer.

Prototypes for fully accessible lavatories have been designed for all commercial wide-body aircraft and for single-aisle, 6-seat across planes such as the Boeing 737 and Airbus 320 family of jets. To be usable by a non-ambulatory passenger, the interior space of a lavatory must provide adequate floor space that enables the aisle chair to be placed alongside the toilet so that a person can transfer between chair and toilet. There must also be space for an personal attendant who may be called upon to assist with the transfer. Airlines, not unexpectedly, balk at the idea of allocating additional space for anything at the expense of revenue-generating passenger seats. However, good design can reduce the loss of seats to three (3) or no loss at all. The interior space that’s needed to turn a standard lavatory into one that serves everyone, can be “borrowed” from adjacent unused space. Hawaiian Airlines has, in the past, outfitted some of their Boeing 767’s with a lavatory that borrows space from the area at the rear exit. Movable panels open out to form a three-walled lavatory with one side completely open. The disabled person (my wife) and I were given complete privacy by the clever use of one panel to close off the aisle into the main cabin. The other swing-away panel closed off the rear galley. Other creative designs are used by Airbus A330 wide-bodies in which a swing-away interior panel is used to join two adjacent lavatories into a single, larger unit. (This design has the drawback in that two lavatories are taken off-line while in use by a disabled passenger who probably has enough logistical delaying issues to worry about.) I believe that better design ideas are yet to come. I suggest that the storage closet for the aisle chair can be located next to a standard lavatory such that, when empty (i.e. the aisle chair is being used), the closet space can be incorporated into the lavatory to provide the necessary floor space.

I hope others with ambulatory problems, no matter to what degree, who have had success with on-board lavatories, and those who I suspect have had difficulties (or not even tried) using a lavatory during a flight will tell their story on this wonderful website provided by PVA.

Mr. Malcolm Cumming, WA