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health risks

Dec 24, 2016

The aircraft toilet and tiny seat revolt draws ever closer

The day of reckoning for airlines that physically hurt and humiliate passengers in the name of efficiency is coming over the horizon


So this is progress? Jamming food food trollies and no-elbow room toilets together?
So this is progress? Jamming food trollies and no-elbow room toilets together in half the space of before?

The fact that airlines are making toilets impossible to use hygienically has became a continuing consumer rights cause for websites like this one and Runway Girl.

But it is also a cause starting to appear in the general media, as in this report in the New York Times. As resentment grows, it might just dawn on some carriers that physically hurting and humiliating passengers, including higher fare full service customers, might drive people away from flying as frequently as before, or onto alternative airlines.

The seat size issue is one that Boeing 787 ‘Dreamliner’ operators have largely tried to ignore. Or to gloss over with absurd PR efforts that overlook the fact that when hip bones get rammed into immovable obstacles, including adjacent passengers, pain is the consequence, and it can go on for 16 or 17 hours in some cases.

Of course economy class is about the efficient use of space. But the sooner the better, it might also be about not losing sight of the need not to do deliberate harm to the customer.

Here’s a challenge for 2017. Airline CEOs, chair persons, and board members, should volunteer to fly in the highest density seats now being fitted to 787s and 777s and A330s, and being ‘promised’ in some quarters, for A380s and A350s, and try to wipe their backsides in toilets so tiny there is no room for the hand holding the tissues.

It is inexcusable that groups of head nodding group thinking muppets should regard the creation of room for another row or two of seats as a reason to deprive people of the space to perform basic functions that are of vital importance to health and well being.

Think big. Air travel has been rendered increasingly unpleasant and tense by the need for improved security and for airport owners to cram in as much ancillary retail offerings as possible so that people will walk hundreds of extra metres just to get to and from flights past what are overpriced versions of a suburban shopping mall experience. We can get that.

But adding to those pressures with intolerably tiny seats, in most cases the smallest seats ever seen in the course of the jet age, and unusable toilets, cannot really be good for business.

Adding 12-24 more seats to a typical jet affects the amenity of everyone who boards. And if they don’t get sold all the gratuitous misery that ensues is a complete waste of the so called ‘efficiency’ investment anyhow.

As the NYT story underlines, families flying with children usually fly economy, and making it impossible for parents to effectively help young children in the bathroom can be just as stressful and unpleasant as flying has been made for the elderly and disabled.

An outbreak of commonsense and decency in cabin design is much overdue. A customer revolt may help it happen.


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21 thoughts on “The aircraft toilet and tiny seat revolt draws ever closer

  1. Xoanon

    Agreed. I long for the day when an airline might offer something along the lines of Qantas’ Premium Economy seats, but in much larger numbers and therefore at a more affordable price than the current 2x-3x discount economy. If one A380 was entirely outfitted with seats that size, they could no doubt be offfered for a reasonable markup of 50% or so to Europe.

    Part of the problem is airlines’ terror of people downgrading from Business if they should offer anything civilised in another class of travel. Really annoying to be tortured in tiny seats simply as a horrible warning to anybody thinking of not shelling out for Biz.

    1. John Byrnes

      Xoanon. This is true but it distracts from the main point which is that base economy seat widths are being reduced on B787s and B777s, narrower than what is on any plain vanilla economy seat on a A380 or B747, not just that wider seats are not being introduced. Alan Joyce trumpeted that the Qantas 787s were being especially configured for ultra long haul routes like PER-LHR, SYD-ORD etc, and no doubt on SYD-DFW. In that case they would have been 2-4-2 down the back as Boeing envisaged when it tagged the 787 as ‘Dreamliner’ but it has 3-3-3 across just like Jetstar (albeit with a tad extra leg room achieved by make the seat cushions ultra thin). Joyce was being quite misleading and his bought and paid for commentators on other travel sites spruiked his PR avoiding this issue completely. Even worse if the B777 which was a decent economy configuration on trans Pacific Air Canada flights as 3-3-3 but an abomination as 3-4-3 turning economy into a degrading experience affecting not just passenger’s experiences but also turning the workplace into the pits for cabin crew down the back with a predictable response, they are stressed and disengaged from the environment to survive. Their PE was very disappointing and one reason is being attended to by the same cabin crew as economy on sensed that vibe, and having to go down the back into The Black Hole of Calcutta for the lavatory meany one couldn’t avoid the humiliation.

    2. comet

      Re: Premium Economy as the answer.

      Premium Economy in a 787 Dreamliner will still be unbearable because it will still have seat-width constraints.

  2. Dan Dair

    “A customer revolt may help it happen”
    That’s really the problem.
    At what point will customers actually decide that price is not everything.?

    I am as guilty as the net man (or woman), but I generally travel short-haul.
    It’s no wonder the A380 is so highly-regarded by passengers, you get a level of accommodation which is much closer to old-school values,
    which is possibly because they can’t yet sell 800 seats on those routes. Perish the thought that those circumstances might change.!!!

    As Ben correctly identifies, selling those additional seats is the key to whether it’s an asset to the airlines bottom-line or just a pain-in-the-bottom of the airlines passengers.?
    The ‘B’ side to that question is;
    How much more expensive is it to put a spacious A330* onto a route which is currently served by a high-density A321*.? (*other models of aircraft are available)
    Obviously, the bare aircraft costs a lot more, but how much more are the daily/weekly/annual running-costs for an aircraft optimised for similar routes.?
    You can write-off half of the purchase-cost of an asset over five years or so and more than that if you lease it, so it’s all about daily operating costs.

    Only when the customer starts to actively vote with their butt-not-on-a-seat, will the ‘bean-counters’ realise that passengers would actually like to be able exit the aircraft in a similar physical condition to that in which the entered it.
    (although, leaving slightly more marinaded in alcohol might not necessarily be considered a detriment.???)

    1. Dain B

      The cost of operating A330 is roughly twice of A320 with less than double in capacity.

  3. Ian Rollerson

    I agree Ben – I’m a resident of Perth and travel once a year, economy, to London with Singapore Airlines. Perth – Singapore in a nine across 777; Singapore to London in a roomy and quiet A380. Luggage allowance is 30kg. Total flying time about 5.5 plus 13.5 hours, with about 1hr – 1.5 hr leg-stretch at Singapore Airport. I reckon I’d have to be nuts to change that for 17 hours solid in a narrow seated 787. The revolt has started!

    1. Bill

      Count me in for the revolution. Nothing will get me on a non stop to PER to LHR. Don’t forget the nasty experience at PER before you board.
      Nup. Its either Singapore or Qantas to Singapore. Take a day in Singapore and then onward. I am not up for airborne discomfort or rude officials at the airport. I can fix the first bit and will.

    2. John Byrnes

      For SYD-LHR far better than squished into the Qantas Nightmareliner via PER if one doesn’t want to spend $thousands more than econonomy, or be forced onto Emirates, perhaps even their 3-4-3 B777s, is SQ232 on an A380 during the day to Singapore, enjoy a relaxed evening and sleep in a real bed, then SQ318 in a 3-3-3 B777 to LHR (or upgrade to the excellent PE) arriving at dinner time for an evening meal and ready for areal bed waking in the morning dialed into local time. Forget Qantas.

  4. Giant Bird

    I also think the revolt has started. The airlines are surprised that there has been a jump this year in disruptive passengers, and also an increase in flight attendants loosing their cool over small passenger complaints. There have been more passengers offloaded and more diversions due to disruptive passengers. It is the cumulative pressure cooker effect of airports, security and airlines making things unnecessarily inconvenient and uncomfortable for passengers. In turn passengers are getting less patient and less tolerant. When it is one or two passengers you can off load them, but when a dozen or more on a flight get disruptive because of the way they are treated, throwing them off does not work. It starts to cost the airline big money and a few diverted and delayed flights soon outweigh years of financial benefit gained by those extra seats. It becomes the straw that broke the camels back.

    1. Dan Dair

      Giant Bird,
      “It starts to cost the airline big money and a few diverted and delayed flights soon outweigh years of financial benefit gained by those extra seats”

      An excellent point,
      I wonder when it will occur to the ‘bean-counters’.?

      Your point about society being less-tolerant is another factor, certainly in the West, but becoming more so in Eastern cultures too.
      People expect a lot for their money, because that’s how airlines market themselves;
      They show you first class whilst quoting economy prices.!!!
      (as is completely normal for advertising)

      Ben correctly identifies that as people are generally becoming physically larger in all directions, economy seats in aircraft are generally getting smaller &/or with less legroom.
      It’s no wonder passengers get short-tempered on long journeys.

      If you get on a bus or suburban train, you don’t expect opulence & spaciousness. Similarly, you can put-up with being a bit cramped for a couple of hours in a city-to-city flight. Beyond that, the airlines are making a rod for their own backs.!

      The sooner they realise it,
      the sooner things might at least stop getting any worse.???

  5. comet


    1. Don’t fly low cost carriers with children.

    2. Look up the aircraft and airline’s seat pitch before booking.

    3. Avoid all Boeing 787 Dreamliners like the plague. They are all Squish Machines. Besides, who wants to fly an aircraft with built-in fireplaces?

    1. Crocodile Chuck

      3) + 1


  6. TomTom

    Bravo, Ben. Thank you for leading this fight for economy class passengers’ dignity and basic needs on long-haul flights. Maybe Runway Girl’s attention to this issue is a sign that the ominous noise coming from the back of the plane is being heard, as RG has built a prime spot in the “pax ex” passenger experience niche but mostly gushes about the more opulent new seats and amenities being rolled out for first and business class passengers.

    I agree with the commenters who say to avoid the B787 like the plague but I do not subscribe to the blanket “discount carriers = bad/expensive carriers = good” philosophy, as there are some discount carriers whose amenities and service – as well as punctuality – are noticeably superior to some typical carriers, especially in Europe and North America.

  7. comet

    It’s criminal that Qantas is even considering using the Sardine Liner (the Boeing 787 Dreamliner) – the squishiest aircraft in the sky – for the world’s longest flight.

    It’s the worst possible mix.

    It will not surprise me if people sue Qantas for causing their Deep Vein Thrombosis. The ABC did a story about DVT on the proposed Qantas 787 long haul:

    1. J_sh

      Note what the simple measures are minimising the risk of DVT on a long-haul flight, let alone on an ultra long haul flight: (1) Move around every few hours; (2) Do regular leg exercises — ankle circles, pointing and flexing your feet, knee raises etc; (3) Don’t knock yourself out with booze or sleeping pills; (4) Wear comfortable clothing that won’t restrict movement; (5) Use footrests if you can; (6) Drink plenty of water (it keeps you hydrated and makes you go to the loo which gets you up and moving); (7) Avoid alcohol or drinking too much coffee.

      Trouble is in Squish ‘Class’: (1) If not on an aisle getting to the aisle to move around is more difficult it is much harder for the person you need to get over to get to the aisle to get in and out of their squished in seat and (b) the aisles have been narrowed; (2) The narrow width means ones upper legs are joined siamese twin style to the person next to you rendering it disconcerting to be shifting your legs around as then you and neighbor are engaging in mutual leg massage; (3) Getting some sleep has become even more difficult in economy so what are people to do on a 16 hour ultra long haul flight; (4) It isn’t tight clothing which restricts movement, there is just no wriggle room whatsover in Sardine ‘Class’; (5) Footrests in squish class, there is no room for them; (6) They are cutting down the number of loos in economy at the very same time as they are increasing the number of passengers to use them so; (7) After all that one needs a wine with dinner, if there is space on the mini-table to hold one.

  8. Tango

    I am conflicted on this issue.

    On one hand I think, just do not fly.
    If you do fly pay for a better seat.

    I do tend to legislation that levels the playing field.

    If all operators are mandated certain pitch and width and toilet sizes then they all compete on the same basis.

    Along the lines of we all drive on a mandated side of the road to allow the system to work rather than the chaos without it (obvious but its amazing how murky the spin merchants have made it)

    And in any case, toilets should be capable of allowing the handi capped to use them.

    That has to be gruesome and frankly criminal and there may be some hope in law suits along those lines in the US due to some laws involving the disabled.

  9. Frequent Traveller

    Folks, you have been off topic throughout, Ben posted an echo to Seth Miller’s story in Runway Girl Network, entirely centered upon narrowbody aircraft, namely A320 Series with its new Space-Flex lavatory option introduced by Airbus’ Chief Strategist for cabin interiors (Suzana Hrnkova), the same that proposed the “wider aisle-seat option” with a controversial seat cushion width lose-lose-win discrimination (A/B/C = 17″/17″/20″ instead of the standard equalitarian 18″/18″/18″). Seemingly she is retaliating with an equally controversial win/lose/lose lavatory design, the concerned parties being respectively the beancounters, the travelling passengers and the Cabin Attendants, the two latter groups voicing a collective outcry of reasoned protests ?!

  10. Frequent Traveller

    I’ve seen Ben’s post about tasers so I got inspired to prompting another comment about Lavatories in narrow-body aircraft cabins :

    Here I’m addressing the kind of Lavatories designs we usually find at location 1L (adjacent to fwd left passenger door). Apart from being minute in its dimensions, simply due to its location in-between the flight deck and door 1L and to the contour of the type A320 Series or 737 NG Series cross-section, what I find most reprehensive is the concavity of the contour, the basin being installed tightly squeezed against the lower fuselage wall-panel, with the concave contour crescent-halfmooning out into your nose whilst obliging the masculine users to arrow outwards forward so as to hit where intended, with no or little chance to control the marks, because your face is smearing into the wall-panel, impeaching the vista downwards … to the unfortunate end that you discover the mess only once you’ve peed to full relief, whereupon you feel obliged to clean up the disaster with toilet paper, with the next user in painful need of relief is banging on the lavatory door in frustration of your mindless excessively long toilet visit, why ?

    1. Dan Dair

      Frequent Traveller,
      Without wishing to get into the;
      ‘why should I, I’m a man.?’ debate about the way one performs their ablutions,
      which in my personal opinion is a reasonable argument to make……

      Why don’t you simply have a sit-down pee.?
      & save yourself all the unfortunate consequences of the experience you’ve just outlined.?

      1. Frequent Traveller

        Men are privileged by Mother Nature, with our ability to get relief without getting exposed to all kinds of diseases by skin contact. I am not readily willing to trade our advantage, sitting down for a pee, DanDair … what about yourself ? Besides, should men also sit then the average time per visit would increase, calling for one more Lavatory in today’s 180+ seats cabins, or six seat less … your idea could be expensive, Dan Dair ?

        1. Dan Dair

          Frequent Traveller,
          I refer you back to the first paragraph;
          “which in my personal opinion is a reasonable argument to make……” etc, etc.

          My point was solely about inadvertently making a mess & having to clean-up after yourself.
          It’s happened to all of us at some point, though not necessarily all of us clean-up after ourselves.!!!

          I know I’ve had a sit-down pee on aircraft during a sudden bout of light turbulence & on more than one occasion when the lid just wouldn’t stay up by itself.!!

          If you’re worried about bugs, get a couple of tissues & a little squirt of hand-cleaner & wipe-over the seat first. Instantly almost clinically clean.!

          Expensive is the airlines problem, not mine.

          Inconvenient is a problem for other passengers, but what do we want to see when we first walk into the cubicle, a wet or a dry floor.?
          I’m not telling anyone how to behave.
          I am suggesting that in the particularly cramped forward cubicle you described, there might be another way of managing the problems you outline.?
          If in a different toilet-space on the same or different aircraft, a stand-up pee is practical, go for it my friend & may your aim always be true.!


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