Airbus recently made headlines by setting the long-distance flight record for a single-aisle commercial airliner with its brand-new A321LR aircraft. The A321LR is the long-range variant of the manufacturer’s popular narrow-body A321 plane and it is expected to fly routes of up to 4,000 miles. Carriers will likely see it as an attractive replacement for the aging Boeing 757.

Airbus presentation slide highlighting the A321LR aircraft.
Airbus presentation slide highlighting the A321LR aircraft.

Deliveries of the A321LR are expected to begin in 2019 with North American launch customer Air Transat. While Airbus has been pretty tight-lipped on orders for the new aircraft, it will likely appeal to U.S. legacy carriers American, Delta and United Airlines. The three airlines operate nearly 250 of the world’s Boeing 757s, with an average fleet age of around 20 years. Replacing these aging aircraft with the A321LR would offer improvements in performance, fuel efficiency and reliability.

Rendering of an Airbus A321LR in the livery of North American launch customer Air Transat.
Rendering of an Airbus A321LR in the livery of North American launch customer Air Transat.

In speaking about the benefits of the A321LR, John Leahy, Chief Operating Officer for Air Transat, said the airplane will give carriers an “affordable modern option for their transatlantic routes.”

Like many disabled travelers, the thought of a narrow-body airplane capable of long-range travel on transatlantic routes gives me enormous anxiety. Flights of 4,000 miles can take between 7 and 8 hours from wheels up to wheels down. That’s a long time for passengers with reduced mobility to be denied access to the bathroom, but that may be what happens.

Under current DOT regulations, airlines are not required to install accessible lavatories on narrow-body airplanes. Even if the DOT announced such a requirement today, there would be a multi-year grace period for compliance and aircraft delivered prior to that date would be exempted. Delta Air Lines once took advantage of this grandfather clause to deny wheelchair users the right to pee on their Boeing 747 airplanes, a discriminatory practice that lasted more than three decades!

As the A321LR promises to extend the range of single-aisle passenger jets, the disability community must unite to demand airlines install wheelchair accessible bathrooms. We can’t accept 30 more years of bladder torture on intercontinental flights.

The SpaceFlex v1 accessible lavatory, for use on Airbus A320-series aircraft.
The SpaceFlex v1 accessible lavatory, for use on Airbus A320-series aircraft.

In 2012, Airbus and Zodiac Aerospace launched the SpaceFlex cabin option — an interior system that includes an accessible lavatory. SpaceFlex could dramatically improve the accessibility of air travel to people with disabilities, but only a handful of carriers have opted to install it. American Airlines and Delta Air Lines, who together have more than 250 of the standard-range A321 airplanes on order, both rejected SpaceFlex and its accessible lavatory.

According to Human Rights Watch, access to a toilet is a human right, but there are many examples of that access being restricted “as a humiliating and degrading form of punishment, torture, and abuse.” While I am not attempting to liken airplanes to torture chambers or prisons, being forced to fight the urge to pee is torturous. It is one of the most uncomfortable feelings in the world, and one’s failure too “hold it” would bring many psychologically traumatic repercussions. I won’t go into those here, but you can imagine what would happen if a passenger urinated upon himself or herself while seated on an airplane.

The stakes are high. And the A321LR ups the ante on an already unacceptable trend in the airline industry, to deny passengers with disabilities access to a toilet. I will continue to fight for new regulations and place pressure on airlines to install the SpaceFlex lavatory. Every narrow-body airplane should have an accessible bathroom, but this is even more crucial on the forthcoming long-range variant of the A321.

The airplane itself is not the problem. With SpaceFlex v1, the A321LR will be a fine aircraft. Our frustration must be directed at the airlines who refuse to do the right thing—the humane thing—of treating passengers with disabilities with dignity and respect.

If you believe that all passengers should be able to use the bathroom on an 8-hour flight, please share this article with your friends on social media. We need to raise awareness to demand action!

Stay tuned to as I continue to follow this story line, including rumors of an Airbus A321XLR (Xtra-Long Range). Talk about a nightmare…

Images courtesy of Airbus.

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