Only one toilet working aboard airplane: What are the guidelines?

Only one toilet working aboard airplane: What are the guidelines?
An American Airlines plane at Miami International Airport.
(Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

Question: I recently flew back to Los Angeles from New York on American Airlines. About two hours into the flight there was an announcement that all the onboard toilets, except for one in coach class, had stopped working, and so more than 150 passengers had to share one bathroom. How does this happen? Are there guidelines or regulations that airlines should follow in this situation? There was no mention of compensation of any kind, although I won’t be flying AA again in this lifetime, so I’m not looking for that. There seemed to be no accidents, and the bathroom at the back coped amazingly well. After we landed, there was a stampede to the toilets in Terminal 4.

Peta Noble


Rolling Hills Estates

Answer: Noble’s question raises some important, if delicate, points for individuals, which we’ll get to in a minute. But first, here is American Airlines’ response:


“The decision to divert an aircraft due to lavatory issues is a difficult one. We must balance the desire to get our customers to their destination on time, while ensuring everyone has the amenities they need during the flight.

“In this case, the decision was made to continue to LAX, and we regret the inconvenience this caused some of our customers.”

AA didn’t address how something like this happens and whether there are guidelines it should have followed.

Although the Federal Aviation Administration has what it calls a minimum equipment list, “There is nothing in the airline regulations about minimum numbers of lavatories,” said Ian Gregor, an FAA spokesman.


Apart from what’s required and why this happened, it really comes down to your comfort — or lack thereof — if you’re faced with such a situation.

The good news: Your bladder probably won’t explode, two doctors told me. “It takes a lot for a bladder to rupture — it can and the bowel can rupture as well — but not in the short time frame we’re talking about,” said Dr. Glenn Hardesty, an emergency medicine physician at Texas Health Arlington Memorial Hospital. A bladder can expand, but it’s elastic and generally will return to normal in a one-off situation such as this.

The bigger issue, said Hardesty and Dr. Michael Zimring, director of travel medicine at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore and the author of “Healthy Travel: Don’t Travel Without It!,” may be a urinary tract infection from holding urine too long.

The American Airlines situation is unusual, but just in case — or to avoid lots of trips up and down the aisle — avoid drinks that act as diuretics, Zimring said, especially drinks with caffeine and alcohol, which rules out coffee, tea, colas and anything that might make you feel better about being stuck in line or without a bathroom. Hardesty notes that drinks with artificial sweeteners can irritate the bladder and intensify the urge.


Those who take diuretics for medical conditions also might consider modifying their schedules.

And in a dire emergency, Zimring mentioned a collapsible plastic bottle, to which I would add GoGirl (, whose website calls it a “female urination device.” Enough said.

The bigger and more common issue with airplane restrooms is that they’re often just a step above the portable toilets we are forced to use at sporting or other outdoor events. Antibacterial wipes and hand sanitizers (3.4 ounces or less for carry-on purposes) are your allies.

When you think about it, a plane is a sort of flying petri dish, so it’s a good idea to wash your hands, then use the hand sanitizer when you get back to your seat, especially if you’ve touched any of the seats on your way back. Wipe down your tray table and the arms of your seat; consider wearing a mask, particularly if your immune system is compromised or you want to avoid giving whatever bug you have to others.

The idea is to come through the knothole we call flying only slightly worse for the wear. End of discussion.

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