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
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
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. 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
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
However, reaction to the tiny lavatories has mainly been
"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
"The picture that I think is important is that the lav
is just one piece of the overall experience," Leff said.