1 more thing to hate about flying: Shrinking lavatories

The sink in a Boeing Spacewall lavatory, which critics have said is too shallow and results in excessive splashing. Source: Gary Leff, View from the Wing

It's well known that airlines have tightened legroom and reduced the space between rows over the past decade and beyond to make room for more seats. But it's not just while in their seats that passengers have been getting the squeeze.

Lavatories, too, are trending smaller as airlines, aided by manufacturers, find ever more ways to add seats within aircraft.

"There's kind of a limit on the space they can save by using slimline seats and tighter configurations," said Jami Counter, vice president of flight for SeatGuru by TripAdvisor. "Now they're looking at where else they can save space."

Boeing and Airbus, working respectively with the avionics companies Rockwell Collins and Zodiac Aerospace, are offering trimmed-down lavatories on narrowbody aircraft widely used by major U.S. carriers. Consumer responses have been largely negative. 

Drawing the most headlines has been American, which is employing Boeing's Spacewall lavatory in its new-generation 737 Max 8 aircraft. American will also be retrofitting approximately 200 older generation Boeing 737-800s with the lavatory as part of its Project Oasis densification effort now underway.  

The Spacewall lavatory, Boeing wrote rather vaguely in an email, "is slightly smaller in the interior -- with most of that difference in space coming under the vanity area. Airlines can use this additional space in the cabin for more capacity or to extend legroom for premium economy."

In online marketing materials, Rockwell Collins states that Spacewall can help airlines reclaim up to seven inches of lavatory space to be put to other uses.

The airlines themselves declined to say how much smaller than previous bathrooms Spacewall lavatories are. 

American is using the Spacewall, combined with reductions in legroom in all cabin classes as well as the elimination of seatback entertainment, to bring the number of seats on its 737 fleet to 172, 12 more than its older-generation configuration. 

Boeing's Spacewall lavatory on an American 737 Max 8.
Boeing's Spacewall lavatory on an American 737 Max 8. Source: Gary Leff, View from the Wing

American is not alone. Southwest is also using the Spacewall on its growing 737 Max fleet, and in June, United introduced the smaller lavatories with the launch of the first of the 100 737 Max 9s it is adding to its fleet. Delta, meanwhile, started the trend among major U.S. airlines, introducing in 2014 the smaller lavatories on its Boeing 737-900ERs, of which it has now taken delivery of 99. 

JetBlue has also gotten into the lavatory-shrinking act, using the condensed Space-Flex v2 lavatory by Zodiac Aerospace as it retrofits its fleet of 130 Airbus A320s to increase the number of seats from 150 to 162. JetBlue introduced its first densified A320 in May and has also installed the smaller lavatories on its fleet of the larger Airbus A321 variant.

The new lavatories have drawn criticism and complaints from flyers, flight attendants and pilots and, in the case of JetBlue, even the executive management team. In a March video message to cabin crews, JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes expressed his frustration about the Space-Flex v2, which shrinks galley space along with lavatories.

"Do I love the fact that we have to go Space-Flex? No, of course not," he said, according to PaxEx.Aero, a website that specializes in covering the airline passenger experience. Travel Weekly was unable to independently view the video.

Meanwhile, American cabin crews have complained about the lavatories on the 737 Max. At a meeting with American CEO Doug Parker, one flight attendant said simply, "You can't get in them," according to a May article in the Chicago Business Journal, which had obtained an audio recording of the meeting. 

In a February session with American president Robert Isom, reported by Gary Leff of the View from the Wing website, a pilot called the lavatories on American's 737 Max aircraft, "the most miserable experience in the world."

Another specific criticism that has been levied against the American lavatories, and now against those on the new United 737 Max 9s, is that the sinks are too small to use both hands at once and that they are so shallow that water splashes out of them. American has reportedly responded to the latter complaint by reducing water pressure, though the carrier didn't respond to an inquiry seeking confirmation of that change for this report.

In an email, American spokesman Josh Freed said the Spacewall was the only lavatory available for the 737 Max at the time it ordered the aircraft.

"For context, [United] has the exact same lav on their Max, and Southwest's lav is a variation that has the exact same interior dimensions," he wrote.

Not everyone is critical of the changes domestic airlines are making to their narrowbody lavatories. Joe Leader, CEO of the Airline Passenger Experience Association, a trade organization comprising airlines, aviation media and other aviation industry companies, said the lavatories are engineered to make better use of space. 

"If you go to a bathroom from 20 years ago, you wonder why there is so much room around the toilet and so much less around the sink," he said. "Nowadays there is so much more efficient use of space throughout the bathroom that it is allowing for more seats and lower prices for passengers."

Leader also asserted that aircraft manufacturers are developing technologies that will improve the bathroom experience in airports. Boeing, for example, is experimenting with ultraviolet technology that cleans and disinfects lavatories between each use as well as with touchless bathrooms, in which everything from the hand dryer to the toilet lid to the faucet is automated. 

However, reaction to the tiny lavatories has mainly been negative.

"It's certainly the case that before, it wasn't called out as an issue. Now we see it," said SeatGuru's Counter, referencing comments posted on the SeatGuru and TripAdvisor sites. The uptick in comments began in 2015, Counter said, which correlates to soon after Delta began flying with smaller lavatories.

Clearly, though, it's American that has taken the brunt of the criticism. The carrier's lavatories were even the butt of a joke on a recent episode of the "The Daily Show."

Leff said American has earned the criticism because it's not just using the lavatories on new narrowbody deliveries but is also retrofitting its existing 737 fleet to include the smaller bathrooms. Further, he said, the lavatories are part of a broader move by American to increase profits by diminishing the in-flight experience on its domestic flights. 

"The picture that I think is important is that the lav is just one piece of the overall experience," Leff said.


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