April 3, 2013 at 6:56 AM ET
We’ve heard of going to the little girls’ (or little boys’) room but this is ridiculous. In the near future, fliers who need to use the facilities may find themselves squeezing into spaces that make today’s airline lavatories look downright large.
Case in point: Delta Air Lines, which, according to The Wall Street Journal, will unveil new onboard bathrooms on the 737-900s it expects to begin flying later this year. The new loos not only pack the same “amenities” into a smaller space but will also allow the carrier to squeeze four more seats into coach.
Known as a modular lavatory system (MLS), the new facilities are made by Wellington, Fla.-based B/E Aerospace. Neither the company nor Delta responded to inquiries as to how the dimensions would compare to a typical 3 x 3-foot coach lavatory.
Will passengers feel the squeeze in what already constitutes tight quarters for all but the smallest passengers? No, said Delta spokesman Morgan Durrant via e-mail, as the design utilizes previously unused space behind the sink and a sculpted exterior wall.
Yet, with planes flying fuller than ever, passengers are increasingly caught in a squeeze play from the moment they step on board. Last year, the U.S. airline industry posted its highest load factor since 1945 — 82.8 percent, according to the Department of Transportation — while fees for checked bags have made finding space in the overhead bins a lesson in frustration.
The result is a public predisposed to noticing even a small infringement in their personal space, says Tiffany Hawk, former flight attendant and author of “Love Me Anyway,” a novel about airline culture.
“It’s already so uncomfortable in your seat and then you get to the lavatory and it’s cramped and you’re in a bad mood…” she told NBC News. “Passengers are going to say they notice the difference and I guarantee they’ll complain about it.”
Likewise, any squeeze in available space will make it even harder to avoid touching the surfaces that make airline lavatories among the germiest restrooms the public is exposed to, says Charles Gerba, a microbiology professor at the University of Arizona.
According to Gerba, the average mainline jet has one lavatory for every 50 passengers — one for every 75 on Southwest — and their heavy use makes their surfaces prime vectors for the germs that cause colds, flus and diarrhea.
“It’s already tough to maneuver in there,” he told NBC News. “If it’s any smaller at all, you’re going to come into contact with more surfaces.”
Even so, onboard bathroom technology marches on. Although currently grounded due to the ongoing battery issue, ANA’s 787 Dreamliners feature high-tech toilets in which a touch of a button automatically closes the lid and initiates the flush.
The idea is “to reduce anxiety” and provide "a cleaner space where you're not as worried as much about germs,” Kent Craver, a Boeing Commercial Airplane director of passenger satisfaction, told the Journal.
Alas, neither new designs nor better technology is likely to rectify what Hawk considers one of the most common and potentially most eww-inducing realities inherent in those exceedingly tight, heavily used and germ-laden discomfort stations: Turbulence and its effect on male passengers.
“You’re standing there and moving at 500 m.p.h.,” she said. “That’s not water on the floor.”
Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him on Twitter.