Shrinking and unsanitary bathrooms put the squeeze on travelers

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At first, David Collins thought it was his imagination.

The restroom on the Boeing ­737-900 flying from Los Angeles to Atlanta seemed smaller than usual. “I had to take a deep breath to access the slot for the used paper towels,” he recalls.

Then he turned his professional eye on the lavatory. Collins is an expert witness for amusement park lawsuits, and he estimates that the restroom was only about 28 to 32 inches wide — roughly 20 percent smaller than the standard aircraft bathroom.

He was right. Last summer, Boeing reportedly figured out a way to add as many as 14 extra seats to some of its aircraft by shrinking the size of its lavatories. But that is by no means the only unwelcome restroom change for the traveling public. With one or two exceptions, WCs are fast becoming an amenity-free wasteland for many travelers.

Vee Vik, a frequent flier and the founder of an e-commerce site that sells bathroom appliances, says the closet-size restrooms are part of a larger trend. Modern bathrooms aren’t just getting cramped. “They also rely on self-cleaning technology and don’t have to be maintained as frequently as the older bathrooms,” he says. And customers seem to tolerate it, believing — perhaps inaccurately — that toilets aren’t as dirty or hazardous as once thought.

Any discussion of restrooms must start with the users, and there, standards seem to be slipping, says San Francisco-based market researcher Lee Caraher. “People don’t clean up after themselves as much as they used to,” she says. “I definitely notice it more today than I did a few years ago.”

A recent survey by Clorox of cleaning professionals across a variety of industries showed they were often unaware of germ hot spots. For example, most cleaners incorrectly think that restroom handles harbor the most illness-causing germs and bacteria, particularly restroom door handles (65 percent), faucet handles (38 percent), and toilet or urinal handles (36 percent). Actually, trash cans have the highest concentrations of germs, according to the research.

Travelers are not happy. Dusty Prentiss, a retired engineer from San Francisco, sent me a complaint about a flight from San Francisco to Philadelphia during which the first-class restroom was closed because it was splattered with human waste and the flight attendants refused to clean up the mess. “I would expect after paying a substantial premium for a first-class ticket that the facilities would be clean and orderly,” he added.

Declaring an airplane restroom “out of order” isn’t that unusual and may not have anything to do with cleanliness. Polly Barks, a writer who travels frequently to Russia, says she’s been on flights with locked restrooms. “The flight attendants report that it’s too expensive to dump in the U.S.,” she says. Rather than do that, they close the restrooms and the plane flies with fewer working lavatories.

Heather Zorzini, a veteran flight attendant, isn’t surprised that complaints about airline bathrooms are proliferating. Even if most airplane restrooms remain the standard size, airlines are still trying to squeeze more passengers onto planes. “The increased number of passengers crammed on board and fewer flight attendants certainly makes [bathrooms] dirtier,” she says.

Not every part of the travel industry is letting its restrooms waste away or shrink, of course. Luxury hotels and cruise lines are upping their game, adding luxury amenities and keeping their restrooms squeaky clean. John Drabkowski, a travel agent who specializes in cruises, recently sailed on the Carnival Ecstasy and was impressed by the restrooms on board.

“The bathrooms were absolutely spotless and well maintained,” he recalls. “They were fully stocked with towels and toiletries, water pressure was adequate and consistent, and the rooms were fully lit.”

Drabkowski says Carnival is bucking the trend because it relies on repeat customers, who simply would not put up with dirty restrooms. It’s also worth noting that cruise lines are particularly obsessed with cleanliness, fearing they could be struck with the next big norovirus outbreak.

There are long- and short-term solutions to the problem. The latter involves traveling with antiseptic wipes, a recommendation made by several experts. If you suspect a toilet isn’t well maintained, find another one or clean the one you need to use. On planes, a broken lavatory may render the “first-class restrooms are for first-class passengers only” rule void, in the interest of preventing accidents. (But do consult a flight attendant before pulling the curtain back and making a beeline for the restroom up front.)

When Collins, the expert witness, is in a tiny lavatory on a regional jet, he opens the door when he washes his hands, which gives him a little extra space.

More substantive change requires pushback. So if you encounter a restroom that’s undersized or dirty or has run out of essential items, say something. In the long term, restrooms won’t get better until travelers make a stink about them.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on our help forum.

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  • Naoma Foreman

    UGH. Dirty bathrooms. People really are PIGS. Seen this with my own eyes.

  • LonnieC

    You just had to go for that last sentence, didn’t you?😊

  • technomage1

    I can’t say I blame the flight attendants for not cleaning up the mess. They probably had no gloves or cleaning supplies. Blame the passenger who fouled the place up, not the staff.

  • MarkKelling

    I too am disappointed with the new and “improved” toilets on the new 737 aircraft. They are so small an average sized person cannot turn around once inside.

    Many of the 777 aircraft that United fly for long haul flights have a wheelchair accessible toilet between coach and business (why? who knows, it’s not like there are wheelchairs going up and down the aisle during flight). I always try and use that one when I need to because it is a decent sized area and you don’t feel like you are wedged in like a cork in a bottle. These will probably be replaced with the next seat configuration anyway so they can add another row of seats.

  • Carchar

    And that’s why I don’t mind when a parent has to change her/his baby’s diaper at their seat. There’s just no room in the WC.

  • Jeff W.

    There is a fundamental difference between the restrooms you find in a hotel or cruise ship as opposed to the ones on an airplane.

    In hotels/ships, you have a housekeeping staff that can address any issue at any time. Airplanes, you have to wait until the plane lands. Flight attendants do many things, but they are not paid to clean the messes — especially in the bathroom. And when the plane lands and the cleaning crew comes aboard, it may take more time to clean the plane. So the decision may be made to forgo the cleaning to get an on-time departure.

    And another sad fact of human nature. Airplane bathrooms are typically used once by a given passenger, And therefore you find more people treating being a little more messy. As opposed to a hotel/ship where one stays multiple nights and uses — so people treat the room better.

  • jmtabb

    Boeing (or Airbus, or Bombadier etc.) does not design or choose the lavs that get put into their airplanes. They are designed by 3rd party interior installers – the same as the seats, galleys, crew rests, in flight entertainment and just about everything else inside the “skin”.

    United chooses the configuration they want, and chooses the number and type of seats, location of the lavs, galleys etc. they want. The plane itself may have been built by Boeing, but the blame for the size of that lav rests directly in the operator of that plane who chose it.

    How do I know? Because I’ve been inside the delivery offices near Boeing where all of the options are laid out for the airlines to choose. One big room with all of the seat options, another with the lighting options, another with the galleys and lavs etc. It’s really pretty cool to see how these decisions get made, but in the end it’s entirely up to the airlines..

  • e santhin

    Some years ago while flying from Peking to Xian on Chinese airways I had to use the restroom only to find the toilet completely stopped up. I reported the condition to the flight attendant who promptly placed her hand in a throwup bag, reached through the stoppage and released the flapper clearing the toilet.She then removed the bag, dropped it in the toilet and flushed it away washed her hands and exited the restroom.

  • Richard Shaw

    I have flown Jet Airways between London and India and on one occasion while waiting to use the restroom a flight attendant indicated that she needed to go in before me – not to use the facilities but to give the are a clean. Apparentley not unusal.

  • LostInMidwest

    Thank you. It truly does disservice to blame wrong entity.

    Example: Lufthansa restrooms on long-haul Airbus 340. Compared to Delta’s, it almost feels like being human again. You walk downstairs, where a human-friendly space opens with 5 or 6 lavatories around, where a human can stand upright without hitting anything, beautiful lighting to add to “civilized place” effect.

    I strongly believe it is past time to involve Government and set minimum human-respect rules airlines have to follow. I do not give a crap how low majority of humans are prepared to go for a dollar. That should not be encouraged, our humanity and civility are worth a lot more than few dollars upcharge.

  • MarkKelling

    Yes, it is common on long haul flights to see flight attendants go into the lav during the flight to replenish the paper products and give the area a quick wipe to clean on most airlines.

  • MarkKelling

    Exactly. The plane manufacturer suggests the maximum number of seats and the other aspects of the interior, but the airlines are free to ignore them. An example is the 787. Boeing suggested 8 across seating in coach and praised their extra few inches of width that would give passengers a little more elbow room. But what did the airlines do? They squeezed in 9 seats across.

  • rwforce

    Delta’s new Airbus 320’s restrooms are equally cramped. Couldn’t stand up straight and could barely turn around. Nice and clean, though.

  • judyserienagy

    I realized what was going on a couple of months ago when I banged my head on the sloping ceiling. And this was in first class. Airlines will not stop until something makes them stop. It wouldn’t be difficult to put together a checklist of what belongs on an airplane and what size it should be. The airlines should be ashamed of themselves, but they’re too busy counting their money.

  • TMMao

    That new bathroom on the United 737-900 between 1st class and economy plus is definitely the smallest one yet. When sitting on the seat, one cannot open their legs to reach between. Even a user of modest size will need to stand up and reach behind to wipe.