Proposed rule would improve accessibility of airplane bathrooms

Mar 19, 2022

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The Biden administration announced a plan to implement rules that would require airlines to make restrooms more accessible to all passengers.

The proposed rule notice filed Friday by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), would require carriers make at least one lavatory on new, single-aisle aircraft large enough to accommodate passengers with disabilities. In a statement, the department called this rule one of its “highest priority initiatives,” arguing it advances equity and reduces discrimination.

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As of now though, it could be close to two decades before the changes start showing up on new planes.

At present, U.S. code only requires carriers make a lavatory accessible on planes with more than one aisle. In other words, the rules would apply to large planes like a Boeing 777, 787 or an Airbus A380 and plenty of other aircraft. Specifically, the rules require a restroom space large enough for a passenger with a disability to approach, enter and maneuver within the lavatory, with access to all facilities.

Related: What does accessible travel mean to you?

 The same rules do not exist for single-aisle aircraft which, which the DOT pointed out, operate “the vast majority of domestic flights,” including a large number cross-country flights. The DOT said this often leads to disabled passengers choosing to dehydrate themselves before a flight to avoid needing to use the restroom. Often, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said, disabled passengers will choose not to fly at all.

Last summer, TPG reported on some of the challenges passengers face while navigating airports and aircraft in a wheelchair.

(Photo by Gilmanshin/Getty Images)

Gabrielle deFiebre, whose wheelchair was damaged on board a flight from New York to Phoenix, told TPG in an interview how she approaches travel, with her concerns about using the restroom in mind.

“I don’t eat very much or drink because I can’t access the bathroom on the plane,” she said in 2021. “I obviously can’t drink [alcohol]. I don’t want to risk having to use the bathroom.”

Related: These are the most wheelchair-accessible cities around the world

“This rule would make airplane lavatories more accessible for passengers with disabilities, and bring us one step closer to the day when air travel is possible for everyone,” Buttigieg said in a statement Friday.

The changes have been the topic of discussion for years. According to the DOT, 2016 negotiations with several organizations, including the National Disability Rights Network, Association of Flight Attendants, Airbus and airlines led to an understanding that the rules would apply to new planes ordered 18 years after the final rule is implemented. The DOT is planning to hear input later this month, though, at which point it may choose to accelerate that timeline.

Related: Tips for finding accessible home rentals

Through the DOT, the Paralyzed Veterans of America organization also issued a statement on Friday, in which National President Charles Brown said the he was “pleased” by the rule, and added, “We must have lavatory access as soon as possible.”

Featured image by Getty Images.

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