Wheelchair accessible bathrooms on airplanes

Q: Are airplane lavatories wheelchair accessible?

Wheelchair accessible lavatories are available on many of today's airplanes, but not every aircraft is equipped. U.S. law only requires airlines to provide an accessible toilet on wide-body airplanes with dual aisles. Wide-body airplanes include the Airbus A330, Airbus A340, Airbus A350, Airbus A380, Boeing 747, Boeing 767, Boeing 777 and Boeing 787. Airlines are required to provide onboard aisle chairs on aircraft with an accessible lavatory.

While some airlines have installed accessible lavatories on narrow-body airplanes including the Airbus A220, Airbus A320, Airbus A321 and Boeing 757, they are not required to do so by law. Travelers should not count on an accessible lavatory being available on a single aisle aircraft.

Some older wide-body airplanes operated by foreign carriers are exempt from this requirement due to a "grandfather clause." Airlines are required to answer your questions about the availability of an accessible lavatory — call to make sure your flight will be accessible.

How big are accessible airplane lavatories?

Not all accessible lavatories are created equal. Airlines have many cabin interior options to choose from, and they do not always install the most disability-friendly lavatories. The photos below depict some of the most common accessible airplane bathroom layouts.

Accessible lavatory on an American Airlines Boeing 787.

Accessible lavatory on an American Airlines Boeing 787.

The lavatory pictured above is one of the most accessible, with plenty of space and a spot to park the aisle chair directly alongside the toilet. The ability to perform an unobstructed lateral transfer improves safety and accessibility for passengers with reduced mobility. This accessible lavatory style is commonly installed on the Boeing 777, as well as some Boeing 787 fleets.

The design pictured above is one of the most common, and I have seen it on aircraft types including the Airbus A330, Boeing 767 and Boeing 787. A wall separating two standard lavatories is collapsed to provide additional space. Twice the space and twice the number of toilets.

Even with twice the space (and twice the number of toilets), the lavatory remains cramped. There is just enough room to perform an admittedly awkward transfer onto the toilet. You'll need to be patient and take your time to avoid mistakes or injury. It's not ideal, but this is considered accessible by many air carriers today.

Accessible lavatory on a British Airways Airbus A380.

Accessible lavatory on a British Airways Airbus A380.

The lavatory design pictured above is used on many Airbus A380 aircraft, including those operated by British Airways. The lavatory is spacious and easy to move around in using the onboard aisle chair.

How do I use the airplane bathroom if I cannot walk?

If you are unable to walk, getting to the airplane lavatory will require using a small onboard aisle chair. Onboard aisle chairs vary in design, but must adhere to the following requirements:

On-board wheelchairs must include footrests, armrests which are movable or removable, adequate occupant restraint systems, a backrest height that permits assistance to passengers in transferring, structurally sound handles for maneuvering the occupied chair, and wheel locks or another adequate means to prevent chair movement during transfer or turbulence. §382.65(c)(1)

The chair must be designed to be compatible with the maneuvering space, aisle width, and seat height of the aircraft on which it is to be used, and to be easily pushed, pulled, and turned in the cabin environment by carrier personnel. §382.65(c)(2)

If you need to use the toilet, ring your call button and ask the flight attendant for assistance to the lavatory. Flight attendants can assist you from your seat to the aisle chair, and will push you to the accessible lavatory onboard.

Aisle chair inside the accessible lavatory on an Etihad Airways Boeing 787.

Aisle chair inside the accessible lavatory on an Etihad Airways Boeing 787.

Please be advised that the flight crew are not able to help with toilet transfers or any matters of personal care. If you cannot manage unaided, you should make alternate arrangements or travel with a personal care assistant or companion.

Which airplanes have an aisle chair for use during the flight?

Wide body aircraft include the Boeing 747, Boeing 767, Boeing 777, Boeing 787, Airbus A330, Airbus A340, Airbus A350 and Airbus A380. If you are not on a wide body aircraft and do not think you will be able to go without the restroom, let the airline check-in agent know and they will load an aisle chair on your narrow body aircraft with more than 60 seats to comply with the following U.S. Department of Transportation regulation:

§382.65   What are the requirements concerning on-board wheelchairs?

(a) As a carrier, you must equip aircraft that have more than 60 passenger seats, and that have an accessible lavatory (whether or not having such a lavatory is required by §382.63 of this Part) with an on-board wheelchair. The Aerospatiale/Aeritalia ATR-72 and the British Aerospace Advanced Turboprop (ATP), in configurations having between 60 and 70 passenger seats, are exempt from this requirement.

(b) If a passenger asks you to provide an on-board wheelchair on a particular flight, you must provide it if the aircraft being used for the flight has more than 60 passenger seats, even if the aircraft does not have an accessible lavatory.

Even on flights where an onboard wheelchair is mandated by law, you should confirm that it is indeed onboard before departure. It would be unfortunate to realize that an aisle chair was not available midway through your flight.

Some carriers, including American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and Emirates Airline, state that onboard aisle chairs are available on each of their mainline aircraft. "Mainline" means the aircraft is operated by the carrier and not one of their regional affiliates. Still, it is important to request that one be provided - just to avoid any surprises.

What if there is no accessible lavatory?

On short flights of a few hours or less, I always plan to "hold it." Other travelers with mobility challenges catheterize and use a leg bag, or some other device that allows them relieve themselves without making a trip to the bathroom. On longer transcontinental or international flights, "holding it" may not be possible, and you may have to use the onboard aisle chair to access the airplane lavatory.