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Suing the Airlines for Better Bathroom Access

Suing the Airlines for Better Bathroom Access
Sharon Hsu

The 1986 Air Carrier Access Act prohibited discrimination based on disability in air travel. One of its stipulations is that planes with two aisles must include a wheelchair accessible lavatory. Single-aisle planes, however, do not have the same requirement. Now one group is suing the Department of Transportation to change the law.

On Tuesday, July 31, the Paralyzed Veterans of America group filed a lawsuit against the United States Department of Transportation.

At issue? Accessible lavatories on single-aisle planes.

While the regulations developed in response to the 1986 Air Carrier Access Act, which prohibited disability-based discrimination in air travel, require planes with two aisles to include at least one accessible lavatory, these guidelines have not been expanded to include the single-aisle planes often used for shorter domestic flights.

The Department of Transportation was supposed to propose new rules for planes with more than 125 seats, including onboard wheelchairs and accessible lavatories, by July 2017, but the deadline came and went without any new regulations passed.

Advocates fear that, without regulations, airlines will have little incentive to add larger bathrooms, since doing so would decrease the number of seats on board and cut into profits.

In a survey of 931 disabled people, the Paralyzed Veterans of America found that a full two-thirds of respondents said that inaccessible bathrooms were a key reason for why they avoid air travel. James Thomas Wheaton, Jr., a 52-year-old Navy veteran and treasurer for the Paralyzed Veterans of America, told MSN that being on an inaccessible plane can be “a horrific feeling. In my 30 years of being disabled, I feel the most paralyzed and the most limited in those settings.” Wheaton also noted that he has to do extensive pre-planning of food and fluids for flights over two hours if he knows he’ll have to remain in his seat.

The advocacy group Democracy Forward filed the suit in the 10th Circuit Court. Attorney Karianne Jones told MSN, “Essentially, the lawsuit is based on this notion that the agencies need to be acting with reasonable diligence and moving forward and not needlessly stalling.”


[Image Source: Shutterstock]

View Comments (23)


  1. makfan

    August 3, 2018 at 7:12 pm

    This will be an interesting case in light of the 737-MAX with the extremely small lavatories. Where does the desire to cram in more seats finally run up against basic human needs?

  2. WebTraveler

    August 4, 2018 at 8:36 am

    Good, fully support this. The whole in flight space experience is worse than ever.

  3. sfoeuroflyer

    August 4, 2018 at 12:52 pm

    Just pause for a moment to think about what this implies. Logically wider aisles. Seats removed. That means airfares have to go up. There is no free lunch in the world. There has to be a notion of cost which informs this issue.

  4. WebTraveler

    August 4, 2018 at 2:28 pm

    sfoeuroflyer, so what? We’ll adapt and deal with it.

  5. gilam

    August 5, 2018 at 9:50 am

    if cost is going to be the driving factor why don’t we just ban disabled people on planes or maybe they can wear diapers? While we’re at it we should just ban fat people too. If we can keep them off the plane then we can make the aisles and seats smaller and the prices will have to go down.

    Actually let’s lump in old people and kids and make everyone stand up. We can get way more people on the plane that way. If you’re too old or too small to reach the straps you should just fly private instead of raising everyone’s airfare by needing a seat.

    We shouldn’t stop onboard the plane. Think about all of those people that need special assistance. I mean how much do all those carts and people taking care of them cost. If we got rid of those I know the airlines would gladly know a buck or two off the airfare.

    Thinks of the tens of dollars you would save on airfare. Who’s with me?

  6. sfoeuroflyer

    August 5, 2018 at 11:10 am

    How hard is this concept: how many people are willing to pay more money for seats in order to provide easier bathroom access? It is simply wrong to imagine that easier access comes for free and for that matter neither does greater leg room or more width. The market has repeatedly voted in favor of cheap and against more room. So let’s not preach here without keeping both feet in the real world. If you push for more “stuff” you are forcing everyone to pay more.

  7. Lakeviewsteve

    August 5, 2018 at 12:19 pm

    sfoeuroflyer: I just paused at your selfish comment. It’s all about you in your cheap air fares instead of compassion for those with disabilities. That is shameful.

  8. akl_traveller

    August 5, 2018 at 11:33 pm

    Absolutely sfoeuroflyer, paralysed military veterans should definitely be penalised so you can have cheap seats. How could we be so dumb! Thanks for your service ( was it three VCs or two?)

  9. bimmerfreak0

    August 6, 2018 at 6:52 am

    If PVA wins, every single 737, MD 80-90, Airbus 319-321 will have to be fully updated to comport with the new requirement. It’ll never happen. I represent Vets so I have a soft spot for this argument but the reality is that making a wheelchair accessible bathroom in a 737 or a 319 or some variation therein will force all airlines to revamp 1/3 to 100% of their aircraft to this requirement. The costs, unless requirements are spanned over a decade, would be astronomical. Airliners like Southwest would see the brunt of the damage since they only fly single aisle aircraft. I forsee the airline lobby stalling this out or something more.

  10. pdsales

    August 6, 2018 at 7:28 am

    As a society we (a majority at least) have agreed that the added cost of making buildings handicap accessible (ramps, elevators on all multi-story buildings, depressed curbs at intersections) is the right thing to do. Existing wheelchairs fit current aisles, so the issue is really just bathrooms. If there is an added cost of one aisle of seats to make air travel accessible to those who face daily challenges we cannot imagine, we should be ready to bear it.

  11. Roamin'Around

    August 7, 2018 at 4:44 am

    Is it me, or has anyone else thought about “how are these people who require wheelchairs going to get to the bathrooms?” A wheelchair in the aisle not only will prevent anyone from using the aisle, but it presents a very dangerous situation in case of emergencies.

  12. GregLeg

    August 7, 2018 at 4:59 am

    To pdsale’s list, I’d add handicap parking spaces in parking lots and garages — the wider spaces result in cramming less cars in.
    Which is then very similar to “a few less seats” in that we’re willing to decrease supply (driving up cost) to accommodate the disabled.

    As the husband of someone in a wheelchair for the rest of her life, I completely support the idea of letting her go to the damn bathroom on a flight. Single aisle planes aren’t just used for “short domestic flights”, after all.

  13. notquiteaff

    August 7, 2018 at 6:22 am

    I fully support this lawsuit. If it makes my airfare a bit higher, so be it. It is the right thing to do.

  14. Danwriter

    August 7, 2018 at 6:57 am

    Lakeview is not being selfish. He’s simply pointing out that accommodations of any sort come with a cost. Markets and societies decide when those costs are acceptable and when they’re not.

  15. vickeryfolks

    August 7, 2018 at 7:07 am

    Absolutely agree vets deserve this basic need. We all do as airlines operate in a manner that makes all of us uncomfortable and at risk of upsetting fellow passengers if we as much breathe on them! Personal space at our seat and in the bathroom is in serious jeopardy. To think some people cannot even get to the bathroom is just sickening.

  16. picturegal

    August 7, 2018 at 7:55 am

    I don’t think the added cost of one accessible bathroom is too much to ask. Amortize that cost across all the other passengers and the additional fare would hardly be noticeable. Already fares change by hundreds of dollars in a day. These soldiers have already paid too high a cost.

  17. tlott01

    August 7, 2018 at 10:48 am

    If it were not for the legal requirement that publicly traded companies return dividends to their shareholders, this would have been done when the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed into law. Anyone who thinks that it is acceptable to discriminate against people who have a physical disability needs to spend a day in a wheelchair, or even on crutches. Hopefully this will be the start of minimum space requirements for lavatories and even seating for commercial aircraft.

  18. BC Shelby

    August 7, 2018 at 12:42 pm

    …being disabled myself (severe bone and joint arthritis) I find it heartless that airlines today value profit over paying customers’ needs.

    How are disabled people supposed to travel (particularly if they need to go to another city or country for special treatment)? Do you know how expensive it is to charter a private jet, particularly one with trans/intercontinental range? Do you also realise most disabled people do not have the financial resources to do so and with the shambles healthcare is in the states, such expense is not covered by insurance? As mentioned in the article and some comments, airlines are turning to smaller single aisle aircraft, even cramped RJs on longer flights which are not subject to providing accommodation for disabled passengers (for example, Air Canada uses an RJ between Portland OR and Toronto which is a 4 hour 20 min flight).

    Maybe Boeing needs to release a 787 derivative with a shorter fuselage and the same efficient operating economics so that all passengers can have a bit more room, there would be two aisles, those who need special accommodations could be served as well, and the airline could still make the same amount of profit they would by squeezing as many bodies as possible into a smaller single aisle aircraft. There, problem solved.

    For those who support the airlines cramming more seats in over accommodating passengers with special needs, some day many of you will be in our shoes and then let’s see how you feel when you are denied the needs you require (or even right to travel) so others can save a few quid.

    Oh and as to the “concern” over blocking the way on a single aisle aircraft, it seems perfectly fine when one want’s drink service on a flight (those beverage carts do a pretty good job of “stopping up the pipe”), but not OK if a disabled person needs to use the loo. That is plain selfishness.

  19. POatParker

    August 7, 2018 at 1:36 pm

    The issue is human dignity. At what point do profits exceed human dignity? I would say the airlines crossed that line about 10 years ago! This trend to screw more passengers into tubes with finite area, has already gone too far! (Especially at American, thanks to the most un-customer centric CEO in the business! Doug Parker) They want to add more seats? Then add more planes!!! They cannot continue to treat human beings like animals! Like they say, kick a sleeping dog too many times, one day it will turn around and bite!

  20. mogsta22

    August 7, 2018 at 1:40 pm

    I think it is way past time for ALL airlines whatever their home country to be given a timescale at the end of which ALL of their aircraft are disability friendly. This has to be adopted worldwide and their needs to be stiff penalties for non compliance.

    I am able bodied and so are all of my family but I still feel strongly about this and if it leads to higher fares we should all suck it up and say it could be me or a family loved one or friend one day. The world today is selfish with no thought for the greater good of all.

  21. sddjd


    August 7, 2018 at 2:33 pm

    “As a society we (a majority at least) have agreed that the added cost of making buildings handicap accessible (ramps, elevators on all multi-story buildings, depressed curbs at intersections) is the right thing to do.”

    I work in this area frequently, and while this statement is true like many decisions society makes it usually falls on the individual to foot the bill for doing the right thing. If society (rightly IMO) makes such demands society needs to fund the retrofits necessary for compliance. Current designs meet current law; fix the laws and let new aircraft designs have these accommodations baked-in.

  22. appletreasures

    August 7, 2018 at 9:40 pm

    I suspect many of the people who would need these accommodations are military veterans. Their disabilities resulted from their service. The price of accommodations is next to nothing when compared to the price they have already paid.
    The one thing I would expect is that disabled folks would get preferred access NOT exclusive access like parking spaces.
    All lavatories are spaces for use of all.

  23. phillychuck

    August 11, 2018 at 8:53 am

    Not being differently abled, but being 6’2″ and normal weight, I find on the smaller planes (I’d include 737s), the size of the lavs are often uncomfortably small. This is part of the lack of biometric standards in aircraft furnishing and design.

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