Some new single-aisle aircraft will be required to have an accessible lavatory. Nearly four years after issuing its initial guidance and 15 months after the proposed rules were issued, the US Department of Transportation has issued its Final Rule, providing guidance to airlines and manufacturers that mandate changes to lav design and components. While this is somewhat good news for accessibility on board, it remains limited, both in aircraft size covered and in timing.
Most notably, the new rules only apply to aircraft certified with a maximum capacity of 125 seats or more. Some groups lobbied for a 60-seat threshold, noting that many smaller markets are consistently served by smaller planes. The DOT rejected that request, noting that larger single-aisle planes represent 67% of domestic flights in 2021 and also typically fly longer routes.
The Department also suggested “that because aircraft with fewer than 125 seats tend to be shorter-haul aircraft, with shorter flight times, it may not be cost-beneficial to require interior improvements to lavatories on those aircraft.” By not extending the rule to aircraft certified for 60+ seats the Department excluded approximately 21% of domestic US flights, per current data from Cirium.
Going forward lavatories installed on qualified single-aisle aircraft must offer grab bars, accessible faucets and controls, accessible call buttons and door locks. Additionally, the new lav design must deliver minimum obstruction to the passage of an on-board wheelchair (OBW), toe clearance, and an available visual barrier for privacy. This requirement takes effect three years after final publication of the rule.
Airlines will not be required to retrofit existing lavatories, but should any lav be removed from the aircraft and replaced the new design rules apply. Airlines suggested that heavy checks involving removal of a lav and replacing it with the same part number – but not the exact same hardware that was removed – should be exempted from the new rules. The DOT disagreed, saying this is exactly the “type of replacement where the airline would be required to install a compliant lavatory.”
While the DOT also requires that lavatory controls “must be discernible through the sense of touch, and that operable parts of the lavatory must be operable with one hand and not require tight pinching, grasping, or twisting of the wrist.” Airlines scored a small victory on this, gaining an exemption for such purchases if they are not available on the market. Airlines are, however, required to make “reasonable efforts to purchase such items” and inform the Department should they be unsuccessful.
Airlines will also be required to provide a visual barrier to provide privacy for passengers accessing the lav. The DOT agreed with airlines that a curtain should be considered acceptable; a rigid barrier is not required.
Larger lavs, eventually
Longer-term, airlines and aircraft manufacturers will be required to install significantly larger lavatories on board. For new aircraft ordered 10 years or delivered 12 years after efficacy of the rule at least one lavatory on board “must 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.”
Read more: Wheelchair accessibility regulations to be updated with Department of Transportation proposal
From a privacy perspective these newer lavs will not be able to use a curtain or other soft barrier. While the Department considers that acceptable for the short-term compliance “such a solution would be inappropriate in the long term, given that the Department is providing airlines and aircraft manufacturers ample time to engineer and develop fully compliant solutions.”
On board wheelchair updates
Within three years airlines must ensure increased capabilities of the on-board wheelchair (OBW) for larger single-aisle planes. The OBW must include locking wheels as well as sufficient padding, supports and restraints. It must also facilitate transfer to and from the aircraft seat and forward entry into the lav to allow transfer to the toilet.
Eventually regulations will also require the OBW to be maneuverable into the lav with the door fully closed for privacy. In the short-term, however, the curtain barrier is acceptable for that compliance.
Sharps & Signs
Finally, all operators of aircraft 60 seats or greater must update signage and handling of sharps and bio-waste on board. Within three years of the Rule’s effective date the accessibility symbol “must be removed from lavatories that cannot accommodate an assisted independent transfer from OBW to toilet seat. Symbol must be applied to lavatories that can do so.”
For sharps handling the same timeline and aircraft qualifications apply.
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