Facing mounting public pressure the US Department of Transportation (DoT) appears set to require improvements to accessibility of lavatories on single-aisle aircraft. In filings published this week the Department outlines potential new rules that would change the requirements around access to lavs via an on-board wheelchair and ensure privacy and dignity for travelers that require such assistance on board. The proposed changes are a positive step, though they come up short on delivering the best change possible for affected travelers.
Some basic lavatory changes
In what the DoT calls “Tier 1” changes to lavatory accessibility airlines operating aircraft with 125+ seats must alter the bathroom designs. The new requirements dictate that on-board wheelchairs must be able to back in to a lavatory fully, allowing the door to close or partially enter forward, allowing a passenger with reduced mobility to “stand and pivot” into the toilet. The proposed rules also require grab bars and lift handles to be installed in at least one of the on-board lavs. Faucets and controls must offer tactile indicators and both the door lock and call button must be accessible to a passenger of the stature of the 5th percentile of female height while seated on the toilet.
The new lavatory designs are a step in the right direction, improving the travel experience for a significant portion of the population (1-5% of all US citizens 15+ years old, according to 2010 Census data). Still, they come up well short of demanding dramatic change from the airlines to accommodate these travelers.
John Morris, a travel advocate and founder of WheelchairTravel.org notes, “The inclusion of larger, wheelchair accessible lavatories on narrow-body aircraft is long overdue. With their increased range due to technological advancements, narrow-body aircraft are being used on longer routes than ever before, with many carriers planning to deploy new aircraft models on transatlantic routes.”
These changes would cost approximately $1000 per retrofit lavatory according to the DoT’s polling of airlines and aircraft manufacturers. The rule would take effect three years after adoption. The DoT estimates this will occur in 2021 with the mandate applying in 2024. Still, the changes will not be required on existing aircraft. Only lavatories that are replaced on board would be subject to the new rules, as would new aircraft deliveries. This dramatically reduces the costs to airlines for compliance.
While potentially mandating these changes – the rule is currently a proposal, not formally adopted, and we can expect that airlines will protest anything that increases costs, even by such a tiny margin – the DoT is stopping short of issuing a rule regarding the size of lavatories on single-aisle aircraft. The Department acknowledges that bathroom space is shrinking in favor of squeezing more seats into planes, but also notes it has no current minimum space requirement and “is not proposing to require in this NPRM that lavatory footprints be expanded to any particular size.” The NPRM is, however, “considering whether to prohibit the footprint of lavatories from being further reduced from current measurements, on the ground that further reduction would adversely impact accessibility.”
These potential improvements are significant and should not be undervalued. But the Department also chose to defer discussion on the more significant lavatory design adjustments that would affect wheelchair-bound travelers.
nclude at least one lavatory of sufficient size to permit a qualified individual with a disability to perform a seated independent and dependent transfer from the OBW to and from the toilet within a closed space that affords to persons using the OBW privacy equivalent to that afforded ambulatory users. The lavatory would also include the interior accessibility improvements found in Tier 1.
This rule would effectively bring the single-aisle aircraft that are flying longer and longer routes into compliance with similar requirements imposed on twin-aisle aircraft operating similar missions. But it is a long-term program and one that remains without mandate.
Under the existing proposal structures the Department would not require compliance with this long-term plan for 18-20 years from its date of adoption. And even then the requirement would only apply to new aircraft deliveries, not retrofits of existing aircraft. That leaves a full generation of travelers without relief on mobility issues on these aircraft.
But these longer term changes, the adjustments that would deliver a normalized on-board experience to passengers of reduced mobility, does not come with a timeline. The DoT did not indicate when it would pursue this second tier of changes.
Morris laments the deficiency of this timeline, “Many disabled passengers are finding themselves restricted from lavatory access, adding a new layer of inaccessibility to the air travel process. Without action by the USDOT, airlines will not install lavatories suitable for use by passengers who rely on wheelchairs for mobility. Regulatory delays benefit air carriers with upcoming aircraft deliveries, as they will surely take advantage of the ‘grandfather clause’ to deny disabled passengers equal access for decades into the future.”