Flying While Disabled: Air Travelers Must Wait Decades for Handicap-Accessible Bathrooms

New proposals for handicapped-accessible airline lavatories would only apply to new aircraft not the 5,600 planes already flying today. Jayme Fraser, USA TODAY Network
Mar. 2, 2020

Federal officials want to make airplane bathrooms easier to use for people with disabilities and aging travelers with reduced mobility. But it could be decades before planes with those features dominate the air.

In January, the U.S. Department of Transportation proposed its first update to lavatory design rules since 1990, when the Air Carrier Access Act barred discriminating against passengers with disabilities. The airline industry is exempt from the Americans with Disabilities Act that sets accessibility standards for most businesses.

In 2016, airlines, manufacturers and disability advocates negotiated a compromise to modernize regulations for bathrooms on commercial aircraft. After years of delay and a lawsuit by Paralyzed Veterans of America, the federal agency proposed a first round of changes in January and said it would accept public comment through Monday. A second proposal could make lavatories bigger, but has not yet been released for public review and would not take effect for at least 20 years. Both proposals would only apply to new aircraft and not the more than 5,600 planes in the air today.

Board member Katharine M. Hunter-Zaworski listens in during the National Transportation Research Board meeting on the possibility of including wheelchairs on commercial flights in Washington, D.C.

“Not having accessible lavatories on airplanes effectively limits how and where people with disabilities can travel. We don’t expect people to go several hours on an airplane without needing to use a restroom, but that’s essentially what we ask of people with disabilities when they need to fly,” said Gerald Neill, who runs an independent-living program in Virginia. “This change is long overdue.”

Flying while disabled: More challenges in the air

Advocates say today’s airplane bathrooms are an unacceptable form of discrimination that cause emotional, physical and financial harm to passengers with disabilities. Travelers who are blind fumble to find the unmarked flush button. People with limited strength or dexterity might not be able to turn on faucets or sit down safely.

People who use wheelchairs say they dehydrate themselves and risk serious health complications to avoid needing a bathroom that’s too small for them to enter. Some travelers wear diapers. Others pay extra for multiple short flights instead of a nonstop ticket.

Navy veteran James Wheaton, who was on duty when he was hit by a drunk driver and left paralyzed, said in the lawsuit against USDOT that it is “disheartening to be denied access to something so basic as the ability to relieve oneself as needed.”

“I am always apprehensive about whether I will have a bladder or bowel accident during the flight,” wrote Wheaton, who flies frequently for work as treasurer for Paralyzed Veterans of America. “I feel the most hindered by my disability when flying.”

Many people skip flying altogether.

When Paralyzed Veterans of America surveyed 931 people for USDOT in 2016, about two-thirds of them said they avoid flying because they can’t use the bathroom on planes.

Among the nation’s eight largest carriers, four would not talk about the USDOT proposals: Alaska, Delta, JetBlue and Spirit. Four others ” American, Frontier, Southwest and United ” provided statements but would not answer questions. Those who replied emphasized that their companies comply with all federal regulations and will continue to work with USDOT to finalize new rules.

“We take great pride in making flying accessible for our customers,” wrote one spokesperson. “The Southwest Airlines fleet is comprised of only single-aisle, Boeing 737 aircraft, and, at this time, there is no DOT requirement for wheelchair accessible lavatories on single-aisle aircraft. However, Southwest will comply with any future DOT requirement to install wheelchair accessible lavatories on new deliveries of single-aisle aircraft.”

The proposals

Changes to lavatory design should be made in two waves, agreed civil rights groups and the airline industry.

Engineer and Oregon State University professor Katharine Hunter-Zaworski, who served on the committee, said discussions initially stalled because airlines said changes would cost too much. Disability advocates didn’t want to lose the opportunity, so they struck a deal built around two questions: What changes can airlines make now at little cost? And what changes will take more time?

“I think we sold ourselves short, but we got some agreement,” said Hunter-Zaworksi, who first designed standards for accessible plane bathrooms in 1991.

Board member Katharine M. Hunter-Zaworski talks to another member during the National Transportation Research Board meeting on the possibility of including wheelchairs on commercial flights in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020.

The first updates proposed by USDOT in January are what airlines and advocates agreed could be changed promptly. The proposal would require lavatories in new planes with at least 125 seats to have grab bars, call buttons, touch-operated faucets and other accessible features. Airlines would be required to remove handicap signs from bathrooms that are not accessible and to inform travelers about the accessibility features of lavatories when asked.

The new rules also would set performance standards for on-board wheelchairs flight attendants use to move passengers with limited mobility. In the rush to shed weight, use less fuel and preserve space, many airlines have ditched sturdy models for lightweight ones.

Hunter-Zaworski said many on-board wheelchairs are dangerous. Among other issues, she said they do not provide adequate support to keep passengers from falling out of them.

Negotiators agreed that a second wave of changes should require single-aisle planes with at least 125 seats to have bathrooms large enough for chair users. They could be similar to lavatories already seen on twin-aisle craft, which are about 70% bigger than bathrooms on narrow-body planes today.

Fewer than 5% of single-aisle passenger planes flying in the United States have bathrooms large enough that they can be accessed by people who need to use on-board wheelchairs, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Even those “accessible” lavatories might not work for everyone. For instance, some people might need an assistant and an adult-sized changing station to manage various bodily functions. Or the bathroom layout could make it difficult for someone in a wheelchair to empty urinary leg bags that have filled up.

Small planes, long flights

Bathrooms became a bigger problem as airlines began to use smaller planes to fly longer distances.

Under the current rules, only wide-body planes ” those with two aisles ” must have a bathroom that can be used by people who use the on-board wheelchair to navigate the narrow aisles. When the federal rules were written in 1990, those large planes were used for the majority of long-distance flights, including trips coast-to-coast or to distant destinations like Hawaii and Alaska.

The presumption was that people could simply “hold it” on the shorter flights made by narrow-body, single-aisle planes. But now, narrow-body planes are used for nearly all domestic flights.

In 1990, narrow-body planes flew about a quarter of domestic routes more than 2,000 miles. Today, they fly nearly all of them, according to a Gannett analysis of federal data on eight major U.S. carriers. Airlines, too, are using more narrow-body planes for international flights that routinely last up to 13 hours.

Because passengers with disabilities are the first to get on a plane and the last to get off, they often are in their seats an hour longer than other passengers ” presuming their wheelchair is returned to them in a timely manner.

“These 10-hour flights on narrow-body planes can stretch into 12 or 13 hours without access to a lavatory. It is just an untenable situation. That is not something I would be prepared to deal with even as a seasoned traveler,” said John Morris, an accessibility writer and travel industry analyst who has used a wheelchair since he became paralyzed in a car accident. “That’s essentially 1-2 times across the country. That is very terrifying.”

Airlines aren’t buying it

For years, the world’s two largest aircraft manufacturers ” Airbus and Boeing ” have offered wheelchair-accessible lavatories for narrow-body planes.

But airlines, for the most part, don’t buy them.

Neither manufacturer responded to requests for comment, but the Government Accountability Office said in January that no airline in America has bought the accessible bathroom Boeing offers. Airbus’ Space-Flex design has an interior wall that swings open to convert two small bathrooms into a single larger space. Both models allowed airlines to add up to six more passenger seats by moving the bathrooms back into the crew’s galley area.

Morris and other travelers who use on-board chairs say the first version of the Space-Flex design can be used by some people with enough upper body strength to transfer themselves from the on-board wheelchair to the toilet. Airbus only sold that model briefly before switching to a smaller, less accessible design that took up less space from the galley.

The loss of galley space was less of an issue for budget airlines, like Spirit and Frontier, which offer limited food and drink services. But future purchases by those airlines would be for Version 2, which cannot be accessed by most wheelchair users.

“As newer options for installed lavatories have become available … we have incorporated them,” wrote a Frontier spokesperson. “All new aircraft currently in the delivery stream will also have Space-Flex Version 2 lavatories.”

Airlines told the negotiating committee that adding fully accessible bathrooms ” similar to those on twin-aisle planes that are larger than the Space-Flex models ” would require them to remove seats or cut even more into galley space for crew. If they lost three seats, airlines estimated they would lose $33 billion over 25 years, which averages out to $1.3 billion a year. On a 125-seat plane that lost three seats, that would amount to every passenger paying $2.40 more for their ticket, according to a Gannett analysis of seat value data presented by airlines.

A separate federal study estimated the total cost for airlines to implement both sets of new rules would be $23 billion to $39 billion.

According to the International Air Transport Association, the global airline industry has been profitable for about a decade and rakes in about $30 billion in post-tax profits each year. In 2019, Delta alone reported $47 billion in revenue.

Heather Ansley, who represented Paralyzed Veterans of America on the committee, said DOT rules force a level playing field so that airlines can make costly changes that could be a financial disadvantage.

“With air travel being a private enterprise and very competitive, it’s hard to see how real systemic change would happen unless it was something everyone was required to do,” she said.

Morris, however, is frustrated by that kind of financial analysis, noting that the seats airlines would lose by adding larger bathrooms didn’t exist five years ago. Those seats were added in the last few years as airlines squeezed more people into the same space.

“I feel as though a greater emphasis is placed on airline revenue than the interests of passengers,” he said. “I would like to see greater leadership from the DOT in creating an air travel experience that is accessible to everyone.”

Too slow

Although glad to see the USDOT requiring improved bathroom accessibility, many disability advocates said they were disappointed with the long lag time between when the rules are approved and when they take effect.

“These airlines are going to take advantage of any clauses that allow them to delay progress on accessible design in aircraft,” Morris said.

Neither proposed rule requires airlines to retrofit planes already in the air. Instead, the updated regulations would apply only to new planes.

The first proposal requiring new accessibility features applies to planes purchased three years after the regulations take effect, which means the rules likely would not apply to the entire U.S. fleet until 2048, according to a federal analysis of plane ages and purchases.

The second proposal for larger, chair-accessible lavatories would not be required of new planes for 20 years, which means the rules would not apply to all planes in the air until 2068, according to the analysis.

That would be 78 years since the Air Carrier Access Act rules first took effect.

Airline and manufacturer officials say the extended timeline for compliance is necessary.

It takes years to design and build planes that meet federal safety standards. Also, many planes fly 25 years or more before being retired, so it would be decades before existing aircraft are replaced with those that must comply with the proposed rules.

Morris worries about all the planes with inaccessible bathrooms that airlines will buy before the rules take effect. He’s seen it before with planes bought before the first rules took effect in 1990, some of which have only recently been retired from service.

A few years ago, Morris was somewhere over the Pacific Ocean when he learned his plane did not have a bathroom he could use.

He knew that the Air Carrier Access Act’s rules required twin-aisle planes to have accessible bathrooms if the flight started or ended in the United States. But Delta ordered the Boeing 747 carrying him to Japan before the law took effect. It had been renovated recently ” new seats added, entertainment systems updated and new carpet laid down ” but the bathroom had not been changed. And so it was exempt from the law and the lavatory did not have enough room for the on-board wheelchair.

“Right now, U.S. airlines, all of them, have a very large order book for brand new narrow-body airplanes. “¦ All of these aircraft are going to be exempt from any improvements to lavatory design for decades,” he said. “I suspect like that Boeing 747, the majority of them will retire from commercial service without an accessible lavatory for passengers like me.

“That is very disconcerting to know that the future of air travel is not actually going to be much more accessible.”

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