Toilets Emptied in Flight

Q: Is it true the contents of airplane toilets can be jettisoned during flight? Haven’t there been reports of lavatory refuse falling on people?

Several years back I was on a train going from Kota Bharu, Malaysia, into Thailand, when I stepped into the restroom and lifted the toilet seat. I was presented with a memserizing view of gravel, dirt, and railroad ties, all passing rapidly beneath me. My pinasse trip up the Niger, which I wrote about last December, featured more or less the same thing. Those who’ve traveled around will know what I’m talking about, and maybe it’s people like you who get these myths off and running.

No, your contributions to the airplane’s plumbing, provided their composition isn’t at violent odds with the blue fluid, are routed to a tank and disposed of later.

A man in Santa Cruz, California, won a $3,000 suit against American Airlines when two pieces of blue ice came crashing through the skylight of his boat. This was not the result of a couple of pilots prankishly reliving their Gulf War combat days. What happened is a leak, extending to the toilet’s exterior nozzle fitting, caused runoff to freeze, build, and then drop like a fluorescent icicle. Believe it or not, a 727 once suffered an engine separation after ingesting a frozen chunk of its own leaked toilet waste, inspiring the line, “when the shit hits the turbofan.” (I just made that up, but I’ll be you anything somebody used it in a news report at the time.)

On busy multi-leg days, “We need lav service,” is something regional pilots say almost as much as “roger” when talking over the company frequency prior to landing. A truck then pulls up and drains away the contents. Driving that truck is almost as lousy a job as being a first officer, but it pays better. The man then wheels around to the back of the airport and furtively offloads the waste in a ditch behind a parking lot.

In truth I don’t know where it goes. Time to start a new urban myth.


This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.