Smaller airplane bathrooms? That really stinks

The lavatory in a 737 Max isn't exactly roomy.
The lavatory in a 737 Max isn’t exactly roomy.
(Jae S. Lee / The Dallas Morning News)

What soars and reeks and fits like a coffin turned on its end? An airplane lavatory. And with every sparkling new aircraft added to an airline’s fleet, the lavatories are getting smaller and smellier.

When I began my career as a flight attendant more than three decades ago, lavatories aboard the narrow-body workhorse aircraft of that era — the Boeing 727 — were spacious enough to comfortably accommodate the 6-foot, 165-pound rookie I was then.

Lavatory toilet technology was archaic. A blue chemical liquid whisked away human waste with a noisy, mechanical flush. After answering nature’s call, I could stand tall in front of the mirror. I could scrub my hands in an adequately sized washbasin. I could brush my teeth and style my hair without banging an elbow into the wall. I even managed to change my clothing easily enough.


In today’s shrunken airplane lavatories, changing a shirt can be challenging — even for an ultra-limber Cirque du Soleil athlete.

In a never-ending quest to add more seats to airplanes and increase passenger loads and company profits, airlines are targeting the toilet.

Collins Aerospace, a West Palm Beach, Fla., company, manufactures the Advanced Spacewall lavatories installed on many Boeing 737 aircraft. The “ergonomic” lavs, which I’ve used more times than I can count, feature mood lighting and abundant mirrors that create the illusion of space.

The company’s website says installing the new lavs can create up to seven additional inches of cabin space. This, in combination with trimming space between rows and downsizing aircraft galleys, has helped at least one airline change its main-cabin configuration from 160 seats on the older 737-800 to 172 seats on the new 737-MAX8. Those 12 bodies in two extra rows of seats are a bonus for revenue-hungry carriers.

More seats in the cabin mean less room in the lav. With the possible exception of a bean counter in a corporate suite, nobody — not the passengers, the pilots, the flight attendants — seems happy about it.

I’ve put on about 10 pounds since donning my first flight attendant uniform more than 30 years ago. Still, as a garden-variety, 6-foot, 175-pounder, I’m forced to turn sideways to enter a lavatory. While standing inside, I must make a Herculean effort to rotate my body because the lavatory is only about 24 inches wide — about 10 inches narrower than the standard old-school lav.

The ceiling is just over 6 feet high at the apex in this modern version. But because the ceiling slopes toward the back, I’m forced to hunch over, Quasimodo-style, if I’m standing at the toilet.

The wash basin is about the size, shape and depth of an enlarged kidney, so it’s virtually impossible to scrub my hands without splattering water.

Adding to the restrictive environment, the two aft lavatories on the 737 face each other from across the aisle. The lavs are sandwiched between the last row of passenger seats and the galley. A design oversight allows the doors to slam against each other at the center of the aisle if they’re opened simultaneously.

Even more troublesome: Anyone entering the lavatory must step first into the galley before opening the lavatory door.

That means lavatory-bound passengers and working crew often bump into each other in the galley, prompting some of my colleagues to tell passengers, “Please, stay out of my workspace.” And because the lavatory doors open directly into the adjoining galley, odors rush into the galley. I find myself frequently reaching for the concentrated air freshener I keep in my pocket.

Earlier incarnations of the Boeing 737 contained only 132 seats in coach, a galley nearly twice the size as the one we have today and perhaps 18 inches of storage space between the aft galley and lavatories. The storage space created a buffer zone between bodies emerging from the lav and bodies working in the galley. The space also allowed those drifting odors an extra second or two to dissipate.

Despite the ongoing airborne assault from the lavatory, size remains the critical issue. If someone my height and weight is constricted inside these newfangled lavs, a large person has my deepest sympathies.

The average adult American male 20 or older weighs 197 pounds. The average adult American female weighs 170 pounds. These numbers, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have increased considerably from 1960, when American men and women weighed 166 and 140 pounds, respectively.

Memo to the the chief executive of every commercial airline:

Airplane passengers are getting larger. Airplane lavatories are getting smaller. Please find a balance between profit and pain.

Thank you.