Disabled flyers often have lavatory options they don't know about

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Delta’s Airbus A220 aircraft offer this semi-accessible lavatory model.
Delta’s Airbus A220 aircraft offer this semi-accessible lavatory model. Photo Credit: John Morris/WheelchairTravel.org

Lack of onboard lavatory accessibility is a primary impediment to travel for persons with disabilities.

And while U.S. airlines don't have to provide accessible lavs on single-aisle aircraft, some carriers already offer semi-accessible facilities on portions of their narrowbody fleets. 

Unfortunately, they do little to let people know about it. 

"The fact that something exists that some people can use is just kind of a big secret," said Ken Shiotani, senior staff attorney for the National Disability Rights Network, adding that those who can use those lavs "really should know that they're there."

The semi-accessible lav model known as the Space-Flex is available on certain Airbus A320-series aircraft. Another semi-accessible design, the Aft Complex, can be found on certain Airbus A220 aircraft. 

U.S. flyers are most likely to find these options on Spirit, which has the Space-Flex on all of its A320 and A321 planes, comprising 83% of the fleet, said spokesman Erik Hofmeyer. 

A portion of Frontier's A320 and A321 planes also have the Space-Flex, according to a 2020 Government Accountability Office report. As of that report, Alaska had 10 aircraft with Space-Flex lavs that it inherited from its 2016 merger with Virgin America. The carrier will jettison all of those lavatories as it converts back to an all-Boeing fleet by the end of next year.

Delta, meanwhile, has the Aft Complex on its A220-100 and A220-300 planes.

Neither the Space-Flex nor the Aft Complex offer full accessibility. Lavatory designer Safran describes the Aft Complex as accessible to "persons with reduced mobility." It's just wide enough to fit an aircraft wheelchair into. From there, flyers must transfer themselves onto the toilet seat.

The Space-Flex complex features adjacent lavatories with a removable wall between them. For wheelchair access, a flight attendant removes the partition. But flyers still must use their own power to get on the toilet.

The designs mean that only wheelchair users with sufficient upper-body mobility and strength can use the lavatories. These lavatories differ from the fully accessible versions generally found on widebody aircraft, which are big enough for an attendant to assist a passenger with the transfer.

For passengers with disabilities, the lack of lavatory accessibility often serves as a deterrent to travel. Claire Stanley, public policy analyst for the National Disability Rights Network, said that some mobility-limited flyers will dehydrate themselves to avoid in-flight discomfort.

Airline lavatory regulations not coming soon

Narrowbody lavatory accessibility has long been a subject of discussion at the DOT, but proposed regulations the department put forward early this year won't resolve the situation quickly.

If passed, the requirements -- to make at least one lav on single-aisle planes with 125 or more seats big enough for free movement in a wheelchair and to accommodate an assistant -- would only go into effect for aircraft delivered at least 20 years after the regulation becomes law.

In the long meantime, even the airlines that offer semi-accessible facilities do little to make it known. 

Delta notes that its A220 aircraft have a wheelchair accessible lavatory on the section of its website dedicated to fleet specifications. But that information isn't included on the airline's page dedicated to wheelchair information. 

Spirit does have a webpage dedicated to accessible lavatory options. But neither airline offers a way for individuals to search out and book flights with such a lavatory.

Frontier's website doesn't mention lavatory accessibility at all.

None of those carriers responded to a question about including mobile-limited lavatories in the booking path.

John Morris, a triple amputee who is the founder of advocacy group WheelchairTravel.org, said airline officials have told him that they're reluctant to promote their semi-accessible lavatories in the booking path due to the potential that they'll be unable to deliver the service because of an aircraft switch.

But Morris said airlines might also be worried that they haven't adequately equipped their aircraft with the onboard aisle wheelchair or that they haven't sufficiently trained flight attendants to deal with those chairs and with the detachable walls of Space-Flex lavatories.

"It's sad in the case of Spirit," he said, referencing the discount carrier because so much of its fleet offers the Space-Flex. "They don't want to share the information, and I think they could gain a lot if they did."

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