Q&A: Everything Wheelchair Users Need to Know About Airplane Bathrooms

Nobody likes talking about using the bathroom, except maybe my two adolescent sons. But for wheelchair users planning trips involving flights, the ability (or lack thereof) to use an airplane bathroom (a.k.a. lavatory) can make or break their travel plans. While this post is intended for wheelchair users who haven’t flown yet as such, I consider myself a very seasoned traveler and *I* definitely learned something. Here’s a guide in Q&A format to airplane bathrooms to help you determine how they fit (or don’t fit) into your travel plans.

What does an airplane bathroom look like?

The first thing you will notice about airplane lavatories is that they are small. Very, very small. And in order to fit more passengers on planes, they are getting even smaller. On some of the newer planes flown by American, Delta, and United, the bathrooms in coach are just 24 inches wide. Somehow in that space, they managed to contain a toilet, a tiny sink, a mirror, and a small cabinet that contains toilet paper and paper towels. Some of these bathrooms contain changing tables for infants as well, if you can believe that. All the doors for airplane lavatories are bifold, meaning they fold in half and slide open and shut, with the fold going inwards towards the bathroom.

Smaller airplane lavatories

Does an airplane bathroom work differently than a regular bathroom?

Yes. Regular bathrooms use gravity and siphon action to empty a toilet bowl, as well as water in a sink. You can’t do that in an airplane because of all the motion. Airplane toilets use an active vacuum instead. When you flush, it opens the valve in the sewer line, and the vacuum in the line sucks the contents out of the bowl and into a tank. This requires very little water or sanitizing liquid to clean the bowl for the next person. When you wash your hands in the sink, you will notice that the water does not freely go down the drain. The bowl will fill with the water you have used, and then you have to lift up the stopper to let the vacuum empty the contents.

Where can I find the bathroom on an airplane?

It totally depends on the type and size of the plane. On North American aircraft, the normally accepted minimum ratio of lavatories to passengers is approximately one bathroom for every 50 passengers. However, in premium and business cabins, passengers may have access to multiple lavatories reserved primarily for their use. Many of the larger long-haul airlines choose to equip their aircraft with the larger lavatories in the upper class cabins. Smaller commuter planes and regional aircraft designed for very short flights may not have bathrooms at all. So depending on the layout of the airplane, you may have only one lavatory in the rear, a pair in the front and in the rear, or a third pair in the middle of the aircraft, sometimes more if it is a long-haul wide-bodied jet.

Are airplane bathrooms wheelchair accessible?

New- construction wide-body aircraft with two aisles are required to have at least one supposedly accessible airplane bathroom. However, the level of accessibility for these lavatories is not what you would expect in a bathroom on land. Generally speaking, they open the doors of two regular airplane bathrooms and combine them into one space. The grab bars are often not in a convenient spot, and the space is still small and difficult to maneuver. However, there is more space for a partner or caregiver to assist a wheelchair user in transferring to the toilet. There is also more space for the aisle wheelchair to actually enter the bathroom space.

Why aren’t there more wheelchair accessible airplane bathrooms?

Money, plain and simple. The airline industry says that it is not economically feasible for them to retrofit existing aircraft with accessible toilets. Ultimately, by making their toilets bigger, it takes away from the space where a paying passenger could sit.

Can I use my walker or cane to get to the bathroom?

You can certainly use a cane, but there is no way that a standard walker would fit in the aisle of an airplane. Aircraft aisles are typically only 18 inches wide. Also, only folding walkers can be stored inside the cabin of an aircraft, and there really is no room to take them out and use them inside the cabin. Rollators usually have to be checked at the door of the plane like a stroller.

How do I get to the airplane bathroom if I can’t walk?

Virtually all wide-body jets for international flights have an onboard aisle wheelchair. These are folding wheelchairs that are tiny, and usually have a seat and back made out of a flimsy synthetic material. Some have velcro straps and some don’t. The quality of the footrests on these chairs also varies. However, these are your only options for getting wheeled to the airplane bathroom if you can’t walk. Flight attendants can help you transfer to the aisle chair as best they can, but you need to have enough upper body control to maintain upright posture in the chair. Flight attendants will then wheel you to and from the lavatory.

Do all airplanes have an on-board aisle chair?

No, but you can request that one be put on your flight. Under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), for domestic flights within the United States on single-aisle narrow-body jets, you can contact your airline and request that an onboard aisle chair be placed on your flight. Some airlines, like the new Southwest jets and JetBlue, already have them as standard practice, which I love. I would definitely give the airline at least 48 hours notice that you require this. Many customer service representatives and gate agents don’t know about this requirement, and may confuse an aisle seat with an aisle chair. Make sure you are very clear that you will need an onboard wheelchair to help you specifically get to the bathroom.

Can I use an airplane bathroom if I can’t stand or self-transfer?

The only way you could do so is if you were on an aircraft with an accessible toilet where there is enough room for a partner or caregiver to help you transfer. If you are on an airplane with only a regular-sized lavatory, there is no way you could transfer if you need assistance.

Will I have trouble with the bathroom if I’m a large person?

Probably. I am 5’6″ tall, but I’m very thin and only weigh 115 pounds., and I have trouble maneuvering from the aisle chair onto the toilet in a regular sized airplane lavatory. If you are particularly large, you may not even be able to use the aisle chair to get to the airplane bathroom. They are tiny and very uncomfortable, as the metal frame tends to dig. Even if you can stand up and self transfer, particularly large people will have a difficult time maneuvering in a standard sized airplane bathroom.

Can my partner or caregiver assist me in the bathroom?

Yes, but only if it is a designated accessible toilet on a larger wide-body aircraft.

Can a flight attendant help me get to the airplane bathroom?

Flight attendants can provide assistance by pushing you in the on board aisle chair to and from the lavatory. Many times they will offer to help by providing a steadying arm for the elderly to walk just a few steps to the bathroom. However, they can in no way physically fully support you or carry you.

Can a flight attendant help me in the bathroom?

No. And once again for the people in the back, NOOOOOOOO.

What are my options if I can’t use an airplane bathroom?

There are several options, and unfortunately, none of them are pleasant. One is to avoid the need to use the bathroom by restricting your food and liquid intake for many hours prior to your flight. Another is to stick to short flights only. Men have it easier in that they can sometimes urinate into a bottle created for this purpose, under a blanket to be more discreet. Some wheelchair users can use a catheter with a leg bag. Others have chosen to use undergarments like Depends.

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  1. Judith Kerman

    Are there grab bars in most airplane lavatories?

  2. Chris Cholas

    My recent restroom experience on a five hours Hawaiian Airlines flight from Honolulu to Oakland was a case in point. Two flight attendants assisted me in an aisle chair from the front of the Airbus plane (my daughter had bought me a first-class ticket to make the flight easier on me). From first class we made our way passing the thirty some rows of mostly sleeping passengers, many with a foot or elbow edging into the aisle. One attendant served to gently say pardon to those leaning into the aisle, while the other pulled me (I was seated in the aisle chair looking to the front of the plane). We reached the restroom in the back of the plane, which had a doorway flush with the restroom floor which helped me be able to swing to the toilet seat still fully clothed. The door was closed, and I latched it to occupied position automatically before lowering my clothes in order to use the toilet and wash my hand afterwards. Then to get dressed. There was a grab bar on one side of the toilet, but I could not lift myself. I slipped and dropped to the floor in the tiny space in front of the toilet. I struggled to get dressed and realized that could not reach the latch from the floor.
    The attendant waiting outside asked me if I needed help and I explained that I was on the floor unable to reach the latch to open the door. He opened the door from the outside, and when the door opened there were four concerned flight attendants standing there waiting to help me return to the aisle chair. Embarrassed, I used the moment to tell them why airlines needed to have accessible restrooms on all of their flights. Once on the aisle chair, the flight attendant carefully pushed me forward passed all 35 or so seats to my seat in the front of the plane. I noticed that the back row leaned against the restroom wall and passengers seated in that row could not recline the back of their seats in any way but had to sit upright the entire five-hour flight. In other words, rather than providing for a larger restroom that could be made to be accessible for passengers like myself, Hawaiian Airlines would rather squeeze in one more row not matter how uncomfortable that row would be for passengers forced to sit there. Hmmm… how sad… greed trumps customer care. Shame on you Hawaiian Airlines (and all the other airlines with the same attitude).

    1. Carol

      Was there a restroom in the front of the plane?

  3. […] on-board wheelchair with a request for an aisle seat on the plane. If you are able to get to the airplane bathroom using these aisle wheelchairs, rest assured that you don’t have to hold it for a long […]

  4. […] good care of me and my needs as a wheelchair user – especially when I need them to take me to the airplane bathroom in an on-board wheelchair. Their smaller aircraft for flights within Europe are less comfortable and a little more cramped, […]

  5. Cathy murphy

    My sister has MD. I often travel abroad with her. She avoids fluids on long international flights. I bring her toilet seat and she uses it in the handicapped bathroom before she boards. I then check it when I give the wheel chair to the agent. Another suggestion is to tape the wheel chair instructions to the chair. They always try to remove the battery and this is where the damage starts. We leave clear instructions about how to disengage the battery. Everyone has thanked us for this. We never use the plane lavatory. Our kids have moved to cities. She has similar lavatory issues when we visit them in their tiny NY or Boston apartments. We have strategized on many ideas.her wheelchair will of course mobilate up and down. She can stand briefly. We were thinking of maybe using a bedpan. Do you have any suggestions for urinating other than a catheter?

  6. Noreen Sutherland

    The bathrooms on planes need to change! I have an ostomy. While on a flight last I had a situation where my ostomy bag broke and needed to be changed.With not only having to deal with fecal matter there was not even running water to clean myself.Only hand sanitizer! I had to open the door and ask for a bottle of water and even then I couldn’t clean myself properly.
    The bathrooms are so cold I ended up using two bags as the glue was too cold to stick to my skin.Can you imagine in that small space how hard it was to deal with my situation?
    I spent a long time in there while other people were waiting to get in.
    Stop with the greed and give your customers decency.

  7. Spina Bifida

    I can understand your pain. With bowel incontinence, I worry what to do if I had a “blow out”? I am not able to get to the bathroom and I would need a helper to help me deal with it even if I could get there. I am not exaggerating when I say that sometimes the mess and odor would be enough to have to evacuate the plane. Would they do this? It is a 4 hour flight. I don’t know how I could live with this embarrassment. Any thoughts?

  8. John Browning

    Is there someplace in the washroom to dispose of a used adult diaper, or a Depend’s, without being inbarested ?

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