The Straight Poop on Accessible Airline Toilets

Sherry hadn’t taken a vacation since her accident, but she was hopeful she could still travel in her wheelchair. Her sister convinced her to give it a try and together they planned a winter beach getaway to Florida. She was relieved when the airline reservation agent told her there was an accessible bathroom on the airplane, but horrified when she actually saw it.

Sherry recalls, “My sister usually helps me transfer, and the on-board bathroom just wasn’t big enough for both of us. In the end I couldn’t use it. I couldn’t believe that tiny room was actually classified as an accessible lavatory!”

Sherry isn’t alone. Many travelers discover the real truth about accessible airline toilets the hard way. How does this happen? To better answer that question, lets take a look at what the law has to say on this subject.

Under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) all twin aisle US aircraft built after 1992 are required to have at least one accessible lavatory. The law further requires the accessible lavatory to include a door lock, an accessible call button and grab bars. There are no specifications about the height or placement of the grab bars or the toilet. In place of those specifications are performance standards.

In other words the regulations describe the access in non-architectural terms. Instead of stating that the toilet shall be a certain height and there shall be a certain amount of space in the lavatory, the regulations merely state, “This lavatory 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.”

These performance standards are ambiguous at best, and I guess somebody could argue that if they can’t use the lavatory then it’s not accessible. However that’s not the issue here. The issue is, how the airlines interpret these regulations and what features you can realistically expect to find in an on-board accessible lavatory.

In practice, most airlines interpret the regulations to mean there should be enough room for a wheelchair-user to perform an unassisted front transfer to the toilet from the on-board wheelchair. Space is at a premium and you won’t find any 5X5 turn-around spaces in on-board accessible lavatories.

There are suggested guidelines for on-board accessible lavatories; however they are only suggested, and not required. The airlines can choose to follow the suggested guidelines or opt to adopt their own architectural standards that fall within the parameters of the performance standards in the ACAA. In short, an airborne accessible lavatory is not the same roomy model you’ll find on the ground.

As far as US airlines go, Continental Airlines has some roomier-than-average accessible lavatories on their 777s. These accessible lavatories are 45 inches wide and 35 inches deep. Granted, after the fixtures are installed it’s a bit tight; with only 23 inches in front of the toilet and 21 inches on the side of the toilet. Still, compared to other domestic configurations it’s pretty roomy. The doors open out and the doorways are approximately 23 inches wide. Not huge, but wide enough to accommodate an on-board wheelchair.

Even though you’ll find the best lavatory access on twin aisle aircraft; some carriers, such as Continental and Air Canada, have also made efforts to make their single aisle aircraft lavatories more accessible. These lavatories are still the standard airline-size; but in most cases the floor space can be increased by closing the privacy curtains which block off the aisle in front of the lavatory.

This extra space allows wheelchair-users a little more room for a front transfer to the toilet from the on-board wheelchair. The additional room is helpful for some people, but in most cases you still need to be able to walk a few steps in order to use lavatories on single aisle aircraft.

So which airline boasts the largest accessible lavatory? Hands-down, that honor goes to Singapore Airlines (SIA) with accessible lavatories measuring in at a spacious 56 inches wide by 41 inches deep. According to a SIA spokesperson, three-quarters of SIA’s medium and long-haul fleet (including flights to the US) are equipped with these roomy accessible lavatories.

Access varies from carrier to carrier; so check with the airline directly before whipping out your wallet. Ask for specific measurements, and never settle for a blanket proclamation that there is “an accessible lavatory” on-board.

Another good resource is www.seatguru.com, a website which contains seating diagrams for a number of airlines. Although Seat Guru does not address access issues, in most cases you can tell from the seating diagram if the lavatory is larger than the standard size.

The bottom line is, all accessible airline lavatories are not created equal. Remember, the term “accessible” has a wide range of interpretations; especially where on-board lavatories are concerned.


A recognized expert on accessible travel, Candy is the editor of Emerging Horizons and the author of Barrier-Free Travel; A Nuts and Bolts Guide for Wheelers and Slow Walkers. She also shares insights, information and industry updates about accessible travel on her Barrier Free Travels blog. Candy can be contacted at Candy at EmergingHorizons dot com.