Secretary Pete Buttigieg and the Department of Transportation have published a final rule for wheelchair accessible lavatories on single-aisle aircraft with 125 seats or more. The rule amends the Air Carrier Access Act to include a number of new requirements described below. The full document outlining the changes can be downloaded in PDF form from the USDOT website.

New Requirements for Accessible Lavatories on Single-Aisle Aircraft

The DOT issued the final rule following its March 28, 2023 Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM). In reflecting on the purpose and necessity of this regulatory mandate, the DOT noted that, “while accessible lavatories have been required on twin-aisle aircraft for decades, until now, there has been no requirement that airlines provide accessible lavatories on single-aisle aircraft.” The Department described the ability to safely use the toilet onboard passenger aircraft as a “human rights issue” and stated that “regulation is necessary because the private marketplace has not met this basic need for accessible lavatories.”

Wheelchair accessible lavatory on Delta's Airbus A220.
Wheelchair accessible lavatory on Delta’s Airbus A220.

These new regulations extend beyond the “short term” solutions proposed by an earlier rulemaking, for which compliance is mandatory within three years. The longer term solutions proposed today will apply to aircraft ordered 10 years or delivered 12 years after the effective date of the rule.

The following list outlines the mandated changes and accessibility improvements, describes the aircraft types included, and a timeline for compliance.

  • Lavatory interiors — The accessible lavatory must have grab bars, accessible faucets and controls, accessible call buttons and door locks, minimum obstruction to the passage of an on-board aisle wheelchair (OBW), toe clearance, and an available visual barrier for privacy. This regulation applies to new single-aisle aircraft with 125+ seats, delivered 3 years after the effective date of the rule. Retrofitting of existing aircraft is not required, but accessibility features are required if the lavatory is replaced.
  • On-board aisle chair improvements — The OBW must facilitate the safe transfer of the passenger to and from the aircraft seat, and have side bars sufficient to bear the load of a passenger who self-transfers. The chair must have locking wheels, and have adequate padding, supports and restraints to prevent injury during movement through the aisle. The OBW must permit partial entry into lavatory in forward position to permit transfer from OBW to toilet. The OBW must be maneuverable into the lavatory so as to completely close the lavatory door; if this is not possible in the short term when lavatories are not required to be expanded beyond current measures, airlines must provide a visual barrier upon request of the passenger. This regulation applies to all operators of aircraft with 125+ seats, and the new and improved aisle chair must be made available within 3 years after the effective date of the rule.
  • Expanded training and information — Flight attendants must receive annual hands-on training regarding use of the OBW, stowage, and assisting passengers to/from the lavatory. Airlines must publish information regarding the accessible features of the lavatory, both on the aircraft and on its website. This regulation applies to all operators of aircraft with 60+ seats with a deadline of 3 years after the effective date of the rule.
  • International Symbol of Accessibility — The DOT mandates that the accessibility symbol (a wheelchair icon) be removed from lavatories that cannot accommodate an assisted independent transfer from the OBW to toilet seat, however it must be applied to lavatories that can do so. This regulation applies to all operators of aircraft with 60+ seats with a deadline of 3 years after the effective date of the rule.
  • Sharps and bio-waste disposal — Airlines must develop procedures for handling sharps and bio-waste and must inform passengers of those procedures on request. This regulation applies to all operators of aircraft with 60+ seats with a deadline of 3 years after the effective date of the rule.
  • Expanded lavatory size — Airlines will be required to install a larger, more accessible lavatory that will permit a person with a disability and an attendant, both equivalent in size to a 95th percentile male, to approach, enter, maneuver within as necessary to use all lavatory facilities, and leave, by means of the OBW, in a closed space that affords privacy equivalent to that afforded to nondisabled passengers. This regulation applies to new single-aisle aircraft with 125+ seats, ordered 10 years or delivered 12 years after the effective date of the rule.

The final rule includes both short- and long-term solutions, with the most important long-term solution being a lavatory with a larger footprint onboard single-aisle aircraft such as the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 series of airplanes.

What will larger lavatories on single-aisle aircraft look like?

The DOT’s mandate for expanded lavatories on aircraft delivered 12 years from the effective date of the rule is found in § 382.64 of the Air Carrier Access Act. That rule states:

(a) As a carrier, you must ensure that all new single-aisle aircraft that you operate with an FAA-certificated maximum seating capacity of 125 seats or more in which lavatories are provided, shall include at least one lavatory of sufficient size to:

(1) Permit a qualified individual with a disability equivalent in size to a 95th percentile male to approach, enter, maneuver within as necessary to use all lavatory facilities, and leave, by means of the aircraft’s on-board wheelchair, in a closed space that affords privacy equivalent to that afforded to ambulatory users; and

(2) Permit an assistant equivalent in size to a 95th percentile male to assist a qualified individual with a disability, including assisting in transfers between the toilet and the aircraft’s on-board wheelchair, within a closed space that affords privacy equivalent to that afforded to ambulatory users.

(b) You are not required to retrofit cabin interiors of existing single-aisle aircraft to comply with the requirements of paragraph (a) of this section.

(c) As a carrier, you must comply with the requirements of this section with respect to new aircraft that you operate that were originally ordered after [DATE 10 YEARS AFTER THE EFFECTIVE DATE OF THE FINAL RULE] or delivered after [DATE 12 YEARS AFTER THE EFFECTIVE DATE OF THE FINAL RULE] or are part of a new type-certificated design filed with the FAA or a foreign carrier’s safety authority after [DATE ONE YEAR AFTER THE EFFECTIVE DATE OF THE FINAL RULE].

You will note that the DOT largely defers to the industry to develop the design of such facilities. It did the same at the time of regulating accessible lavatories on wide-body dual-aisle aircraft, the result of which has not always benefitted passengers with disabilities.

While the accessible lavatories on some Boeing 777 and Boeing 787 aircraft (pictured above) offer a higher level of accessibility, with space to park a wheelchair directly alongside the toilet seat for a safe lateral transfer, that is not the case on all wide-body aircraft.

Many airlines, including Delta Air Lines on its flagship Airbus A350 and British Airways on its brand new Airbus A350 have installed lavatories that combine two standard-sized lavatories into one (pictured above). These lack the accessibility features that many disabled travelers need to safely use the lavatory, yet they comply with federal regulations. The USDOT should have expressly forbidden this method of compliance, as it has already been tried with little success on single-aisle aircraft (namely the SpaceFlex lavatory from Airbus, which is a nightmare to use).

DOT Regulations Are Likely to Be Outdated Before They Go Into Effect

The first larger accessible lavatories mandated by this regulation will not appear for 12 years from the effective date of the rule. Delta Flight Products, which unveiled the Air4All wheelchair securement space for airplanes earlier this summer, expects their product to come to market long before then.

Secretary Pete in the control tower at airport.
Secretary Pete Buttigieg inside the air traffic control tower at Charlotte Douglas International Airport.

These new regulations do not account for the presence of passengers’ personal wheelchairs in the aircraft cabin, and the lavatory products airlines install in response to this rule are unlikely to accommodate their use. 382.64(a)(1) should have instead read, “Permit a qualified individual with a disability equivalent in size to a 95th percentile male to approach, enter, maneuver within as necessary to use all lavatory facilities, and leave, by means of the aircraft’s on-board wheelchair or, on aircraft with a wheelchair securement space, the passenger’s own mobility device, in a closed space that affords privacy equivalent to that afforded to ambulatory users.” Perhaps some will argue that the proper time for regulating that level of accessibility is at a later date, but it seems that failing to strike the iron while it is hot may result in a further delay spanning decades.

If you’d like to read more of my thoughts on the outdated nature of these regulations, see the article Vice President Harris Promises Action on Accessible Airplane Bathrooms.

The missing regulation that is desperately needed

When I published my review of Business Class on a Delta Airbus A350 from Los Angeles to Sydney, Australia, I noted the location of the accessible lavatory was behind row 39, in the middle of the economy cabin towards the back of the aircraft. I opined:

Traveling in an aisle chair from my seat in row 4 all the way to the back of the aircraft wasn’t a positive experience. I bumped into nearly every passenger along the way, passing through both the premium economy and economy class cabins. The lavatory was 20 seating rows away from the nearest boarding door — much too far and a failure in accessible design.

On single aisle aircraft, the accessible lavatory should be located at the front of the aircraft to prepare for the future installation of a wheelchair securement space in row one. At worst, the accessible should be located between the first and economy class cabins, to ensure passengers have easy access using the onboard aisle wheelchair, regardless of the fare purchased.

This should have been mandated. The DOT’s failure to do so will likely result in the accessible lavatory being located at the rear of the aircraft, meaning disabled passengers will be pulled down the length of the plane even if they are seated in business class or in the first rows of economy class. It’s undignified, uncomfortable, unsafe, and unnecessary.

Final Thoughts

The DOT admitted that its action with respect to accessible lavatories on single-aisle aircraft is long overdue. But we must recognize that the steps taken through this new series of regulations do not go far enough. Passengers should have the ability to sit in their mobility devices and safely use them in the onboard lavatory — just as it is possible to do on the Brightline Train or in Amtrak’s new Venture Car by Siemens. We know that a wheelchair space is coming, so let us be more bold in laying the groundwork for that future. Until that time, we can hardly call even the best bathrooms on airplanes “accessible.” These larger lavatories simply won’t meet the standard of the definition of accessibility.

What do you think are the most important features in an accessible bathroom? How would you make airplane lavatories more accessible? Let me know in the comments below!

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