On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) that would require operators of single-aisle aircraft with 125 seats or more to install accessible toilets. This is welcome news for disabled travelers, given that such aircraft are now being deployed on cross-country and intercontinental routes — flights that can be up to 9 hours from take-off to touchdown (I once flew across the pond on a Norwegian Boeing 737 MAX with no access to the lavatory).

The issue, as is often the case, is in the details. If adopted, the rule would not take effect for 20 years. Yes, you read that right.

Picture of accessible airplane lavatory.
Read about accessible lavatories in existing aircraft.

The proposed rule would require accessible lavatories to be installed on new aircraft ordered 18 years or delivered 20 years after the effective date of a final rule. The hundreds of new single-aisle aircraft that U.S. carriers have already ordered and that will be delivered over the next decade won’t be included.

This extended delay for implementation ensures inaccessibility will remain the rule, not the exception, for decades to come. The following excerpt from the NPRM reveals just how long it will take for accessible lavatories to be widely available:

If the useful life of an aircraft is roughly 25 years, then approximately 4 percent of aircraft would be replaced annually, on average. Under these assumptions and the current implementation dates of the rule, it would take approximately 25 years for one-quarter of all qualifying aircraft to be deployed with accessible features, 30 years for half of all qualifying aircraft, and 45 years for essentially all qualifying aircraft to have the accessibility features described in this NPRM.

This exceedingly long time horizon — at least 45 years until all single-aisle aircraft feature an accessible toilet — is realistic because airlines won’t be required to retrofit existing aircraft.

In 1990, when the Air Carrier Access Regulations went into force, airlines were required to install accessible lavatories on twin-aisle aircraft ordered after April 5, 1990, or delivered after April 5, 1992. In July 1990, Northwest Airlines (later acquired by Delta Air Lines), took delivery of a new Boeing 747 aircraft (N667US), a type often referred to as the “Queen of the Skies.” It was delivered without an accessible lavatory.

Delta Boeing 747 airplane at Seattle airport gate.
Delta Air Lines Boeing 747 airplane at Seattle airport gate in May 2016.

26 years later, in May 2016, I had the misfortune of discovering that, despite having replaced much of the interior in that ex-Northwest aircraft (including adding fancy lay-flat beds in business class), Delta refused to install an accessible lavatory. So, there I was, stuck on an airplane over the Pacific Ocean, halfway between Seattle and Tokyo, with no accessible toilet available. It was an excruciatingly painful journey of nearly 11 hours, and the airline was in the clear — it had taken advantage of the “grandfather clause.”

We can (and should) expect airlines to similarly take advantage of this opportunity to delay installing a critical accessibility feature to disabled passengers on single-aisle aircraft. That means, if the rule were to be adopted this year, some aircraft will still be flying without an accessible lavatory until at least 2067. I hope that, in 2067, when I am 77 years old, I won’t draw the unlucky straw as I did while flying with Delta in 2016.

Will the lavatories actually be accessible?

The DOT’s intent is to require facilities that are “large enough to permit a passenger with a disability (with the help of an assistant, if necessary) to approach, enter, and maneuver within the aircraft lavatory, as necessary, to use all lavatory facilities and leave by means of the aircraft’s on-board wheelchair.”

Accessible lavatory on an American Airlines Boeing 787.
Accessible lavatory on an American Airlines Boeing 787.

We’ve already seen several accessible lavatory designs available for installation on narrow-body aircraft. These include the accessible lavatory on the Airbus A220, as well as the SpaceFlex v1 and v2 designs from Airbus, and Boeing’s PaxPlus option. In my view, none of these are large enough or accessible enough to comply with the DOT’s stated intent, but it would not surprise me if they were given the green light nonetheless. It is the position of WheelchairTravel.org that accessible lavatories can only be considered as such if they provide space for the onboard wheelchair to park alongside the toilet, allowing for a safe, lateral transfer — essentially, adopting the standards promulgated through the Americans with Disabilities Act. A number of accessible airplane lavatory designs on twin-aisle jets already meet this standard.

Share your comments with the DOT

As part of every NPRM, the public is invited to share comments that the DOT will review prior to publishing a final rule. In the case of this particular NPRM, your comments are critical. In its release, the DOT has stated the following:

However, given this long timeframe and in recognition of the affirmative responsibility of the Federal government to advance equity, civil rights and equal opportunity for all individuals, the Department is seeking comment on whether these accessibility improvements could be implemented more quickly than proposed. Based on the comments it receives, the Department may adjust the implementation timeline as part of the final rule.

Comments to the NPRM must be received within 60 days of the date the notice being published in the Federal Register. Comments can be filed on www.regulations.gov, docket number DOT-OST-2021-0137.

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