If the restroom on your next flight seems a bit snug, don't assume you've picked up a few pounds. U.S. airlines increasingly are putting smaller lavatories on their planes — and the economics of the decision means they're probably here to stay.
Airlines are taking advantage of robust travel demand to squeeze as many passengers as possible into planes. Knee-bashing reductions to legroom and elbow-crunching cuts to seat size are well-known tactics. The latest method is to retrofit old aircraft and order new ones with svelte lavatories that allow for an extra row of seats.
Airlines say the new restrooms are just a few inches smaller than what passengers are used to. But it's not as though the bathrooms were that big to begin with. And the tighter fit is sparking complaints from pilots, concerns from flight attendants, and griping from travelers.
"We're both compact people, but I still had to basically straddle him to be able to fit in the lav together," Samuel Engel, who leads the aviation group at consulting firm ICF, said about taking his 4-year-old son to the restroom during a recent four-hour flight. "The sink is so tiny that we did a sort of four-handed ballet to wash each of our hands in turn, splashing water all over."
The experience could be duplicated on just about any U.S. carrier.
American Airlines is using a smaller lavatory on new and remodeled older Airbus 321s and on more than 300 Boeing 737s.
United Continental has smaller lavatories on 10 percent of its 737 fleet — almost three dozen planes — and will use them on at least 155 upgraded 737s.
Delta Air Lines has used smaller washrooms since 2014. JetBlue Airways is outfitting some of its fleet.
Gary Weissel, managing director of Tronos Aviation Consulting, estimated that American could generate about $400,000 a year for each seat it adds to a plane, based on average fares and typical aircraft usage.
"Even with passenger complaints on these lavs, I don't see airlines pulling them out," Weissel said. "The revenue generated from being able to get an additional row of seats in there is too great."
American announced last fall that adding seats to those Boeing and Airbus jets would bring in $500 million a year. JetBlue has estimated that boosting capacity on its Airbus 320s by 12 seats to 162 will increase annual revenue by $100 million.
At shoulder height, the width of Rockwell Collins' Advanced Spacewall restroom, which is just one of the company's options that could be used by many airlines, is about the same as older economy-class restrooms. The space savings comes around sink level, as the wall curves in to allow a row of three seats to be tucked under the bend. The lavatory provides seven inches more of cabin space, according to a Rockwell spokeswoman. The company and several airlines declined to provide full dimensions.
The smaller restrooms going on American's 100 new Boeing 737 Max aircraft have prompted employees to dub it the Mini. Almost 230 older 737-800s also will be retrofitted with the petite washroom.
The economy cabin on American's Max 8 is "the most miserable experience in the world," Jimmy Walton, a captain for the airline, told company president Robert Isom during an employee meeting. "You've added 12 more seats, no more lavatories and you've shrunk that lavatory to 75 percent of what it was before," Walton said. "I can't turn around in it."
The lavatories are 22.4 inches across at a passenger's chest level when seated, American said. That's 3.1 inches narrower than the previous models.
"You're talking inches. We're not talking feet," said David Seymour, American's senior vice president of integrated operations. "I don't know how big of a population falls into 'I can't move around in it.' "
Airlines "have decided the lavatory doesn't matter that much" as they try to squeeze in more seats, said Jami Counter, vice president of flights at the TripAdvisor and SeatGuru.com air-travel sites. "I think they might have gone a bit too far. They're taking it off of what already was a very skinny configuration."
United's first Boeing 737 Max 9 flights on June 7 spurred complaints on Twitter about the small restroom. Zach Honig, an editor-at-large for The Points Guy, a travel-tips site, tweeted that the economy class bathrooms on the plane "are shockingly bad" and "especially narrow."
The airline's 737s offer two or three different-size lavatories, including one in the premium cabin, said United spokeswoman Maddie King. The washroom at the front of the plane often is larger — but typically isn't available to economy passengers.
JetBlue's planes have at least one full-size lavatory at the front that can be used by any passenger, said spokesman Doug McGraw. "The aircraft has a finite amount of space," he said. "It's not without challenges, but customer feedback on all the upgrades we are making to our interiors has been very good."
Rockwell said that as trends in travel and fares change, it offers various restrooms to help carriers adapt. "These range from large lavatories to space-saving lavatories, which allow airlines to optimize the cabin," said spokeswoman Pam Tvrdy-Cleary.