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USDOT’s Single-Aisle Accessible Lavs Final Rule: Delays Ahead

The US DOT has issued its final rule on accessible lavatories on single-aisle aircraft 14 CFR Part 382
[Docket No. DOT–OST–2021-0137] after many years of review and deliberations. While the final rule addresses many passenger complaints, its implementation timeline means that disabled passengers will have to wait over a decade to see results. 

The final rule, which goes into effect 60 days after the date of its publication in the Federal Register, stipulates a schedule of implementation that addresses airlines’ complaints over the costs of rapid implementation. 

A closer look at the applicability of the US DOT’s Final Rule on accessible lavatories for single-aisle aircraft 

Published in the final rule, the USDOT offers a schedule of the various requirements and when they must go into effect. The extended dates for implementation and the lack of a retrofitting requirement mean that many disabled passengers will continue to fly on single-aisle aircraft equipped with lavatories that don’t meet these requirements for over a decade to come.

Aircraft feature Requirements Application and Implementation Date
Lavatory InteriorsLavatory must have grab bars, accessible faucets and controls, accessible call buttons and door locks, minimum obstruction to the passage of an on-board wheelchair (OBW), toe clearance, and an available visual barrier for privacy. Retrofitting not required, but accessibility features are required if lavatory is replaced. New single-aisle aircraft with 125+ seats, delivered 3 years after effective date of the rule
OBW improvementsOBW must facilitate safe transfer to and from the aircraft seat, have locking wheels, and have adequate padding, supports and restraints.
OBW must permit partial entry into lavatory in forward position to permit transfer from OBW to toilet.

OBW must be maneuverable into the lavatory so as to completely close the lavatory door; if this is not possible in the short term when lavatories are not required to be expanded beyond current measures, airlines must provide visual barrier on request. Airlines must stow OBW in any safe available stowage space.

Operators of single- aisle aircraft with 125+ seats, 3 years after effective date of the rule
Training and InformationAnnual hands-on training required regarding OBW use, stowage, and assisting passengers to/from the lavatory on the OBW.
Information required within aircraft and on airline web sites regarding accessibility features of lavatory.
Operators of single- aisle aircraft with 60+ seats, 3 years after effective date of the rule
International Symbol of AccessibilitySymbol must be removed from lavatories that cannot accommodate an assisted independent transfer from OBW to toilet seat. Symbol must be applied to lavatories that can do so.Operators of single- aisle aircraft with 60+ seats, 3 years after effective date of the rule
Sharps and bio- wasteAirlines must develop procedures for handling sharps and bio-waste and must inform passengers of those procedures on request.Operators of single- aisle aircraft with 60+ seats, 3 years after effective date of the rule
Expanded lavatory sizeLavatory must permit a person with a disability and an attendant, both equivalent in size to a 95th percentile male, to approach, enter, maneuver within as necessary to use all lavatory facilities, and leave, by means of the OBW, in a closed space that affords privacy equivalent to that afforded to ambulatory users.New single-aisle aircraft with 125+ seats, ordered 10 years or delivered 12 years after effective date, or on new type-certificated* aircraft designs filed 1 year after effective date.


*(Note: this applies only to clean-sheet aircraft, not to new aircraft based on an existing design)

Source: US Department of Transportation

The implementation delays for accessible lavatories on single-aisle aircraft could have been worse

As the USDOT explains, airline industry representatives had pushed for an 18/20 year allowance in the rule for accessible lavatories. The USDOT did not agree. As they explain:

“After careful consideration of all of the comments, the Department concludes that a faster implementation period is both necessary and appropriate. First, in our view, requiring accessible lavatories on an 18/20 implementation period would penalize passengers with disabilities and other stakeholders who would benefit from the rule, for the Department’s own delay in finalizing the rule. The Department proposed 18/20 years for the implementation period to honor the promise to stakeholders during the negotiated rulemaking. However, given the technical feasibility of having accessible lavatories earlier and the Department’s position that accessible toileting is a basic human need and right, the Department determined that it is unacceptable to have individuals with disabilities wait another 18/20 years after the effective date of the rule.

In our view, reducing the implementation period by six years would be the minimum that the Department could do to maintain the reasonable expectations of the stakeholders as expressed in the 2016 ACCESS  Advisory Committee’s Term Sheet. Given the significance of accessible lavatories to passengers with disabilities and other stakeholders, it is also appropriate to do more than the bare minimum. The Department is mandating implementation on the fastest basis that is both realistic and economically feasible. After reviewing the record of the ACCESS Advisory Committee and the comments received to the NPRM, we believe that a 10/12 implementation period for newly- manufactured aircraft is realistic from a technological, engineering, and manufacturing perspective. This is particularly true given that the core lavatory specifications found in this final rule are essentially unchanged from the 2016 Term Sheet and the 2021 NPRM. In short, we are confident that technical solutions do exist, and can be implemented within a 10/12 time frame. This time frame also allows airlines and manufacturers time to satisfy existing orders and deliveries without interruption. 

“So far as we can determine, the primary driver of industry’s concern is cost, in the form of lost revenue from removal of seats and/or impingement of a larger lavatory into space that could be used for galleys (food and beverage service). As we explain in our Regulatory Impact Analysis, those costs may be recoverable in the form of higher air fares. Moreover, while the Department could reduce those burdens by extending the implementation period, any such extension will necessarily impose burdens on passengers with disabilities who will be forced to wait longer to enjoy the basic human dignity of being able to use a lavatory on a long-haul flight. 

“Our economic analysis reflects that with a 10/12 implementation period, that net revenue impacts to airlines will range from a loss of 1.6 percent to a gain of less than one percent. Airfare increases could range from zero to 3 or 4 percent of baseline airfares, depending on the ability of airlines to pass on increased costs through increases in airfare. These are relatively small impacts considering access to toilets is a basic human need and should be available to all. 

“We have considered the even more aggressive solution of retrofitting, but continue to hold the view that retrofitting should not be required because of cost uncertainties. Similarly, we have not required accessible lavatories on amended type-certificated aircraft earlier than 10/12 because this could again require either retrofitting or early replacement of existing aircraft, which would add significant costs or may not be technically feasible due to the production cycle of new aircraft. We will continue to require accessible lavatories on new type-certificated (clean sheet) designs filed with the FAA or a foreign safety authority more than 1 year after the effective date of the rule.”

There is no doubt that this rule is essential to ensure the comfort of all travelers. Another revelation in the documentation of the final rule is that airlines are unwilling to offer accessible lavatories even when they are already available in the design of existing aircraft. 

“During the Access Advisory Committee proceedings, stakeholders learned that it took Bombardier approximately 20 years to manufacture its C-series aircraft from a clean-sheet design that included an accessible lavatory. It does not logically follow that it necessarily takes 20 years to implement accessible lavatory solutions on existing type-certificated aircraft. As we also explained in the NPRM, airline customers largely chose not to select the accessible-lavatory option on the C-Series (now Airbus A220) aircraft that they order.

Why We Needed this Regulatory Action on Aircraft Accessibility

The US DOT provided a statement of why the rule is required that is worth reading in full: 

“The Department is committed to ensuring that our air transportation system is safe and accessible for all. This includes taking necessary action to remove transportation barriers that exist for individuals with disabilities. Like all individuals, those with disabilities rely on transportation for all aspects of their lives. Transportation connects individuals to family and friends, to jobs and to vital services, and it opens the door to opportunity.

“While accessible lavatories have been required on twin-aisle aircraft for decades, until now, there has been no requirement that airlines provide accessible lavatories on single-aisle aircraft. However, single-aisle aircraft are increasingly used by airlines for long-haul flights because the fuel efficiency and range of the aircraft have improved. The percentage of flights between 1,500 and 3,000 miles flown by single-aisle aircraft increased from less than 40 percent in 1991 to 86 percent in 2021.1 These flights can last four or more hours.

“The inability to safely access and use the lavatory on long flights can impact the dignity of passengers with disabilities and deter them from traveling by air, limiting their independence and freedom to travel. This final rule addresses a human rights issue and promotes freedom to travel for people with disabilities. It is an unfortunate reality that today, many air travelers with disabilities, knowing that they will not be able to use the lavatory during a flight, may dehydrate themselves or even withhold bodily functions so that they do not need to urinate. These actions can cause adverse health effects, including increased chances of urinary tract infections. Other passengers may use adult diapers or catheters, which they may find degrading and uncomfortable. Some wheelchair users avoid flying altogether. For example, a recent survey conducted by Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) and 11 other veterans’ and disability advocacy organizations found that 56% of respondents reported that inaccessible lavatories were reason enough to choose not to fly unless absolutely necessary. These are conditions that passengers without disabilities would justifiably consider intolerable.

Regulation is necessary because the private marketplace has not met this basic need for accessible lavatories. While a relatively small number of single-aisle aircraft do have lavatories that approximate the size and functionality of accessible twin-aisle aircraft lavatories, the vast majority of aircraft lavatories are too small to accommodate on-board wheelchairs or attendants. While accessible lavatory options do exist in the marketplace, airlines have largely chosen to forgo them in favor of an additional row of seats or extra galley space. Existing lavatories often lack accessible features and a safe and reliable means of accessing those lavatories using an onboard wheelchair. Information regarding the accessible features of lavatories is difficult to obtain.

“We expect this rule to directly benefit millions of individuals with mobility impairments who cannot independently access the lavatory as a result of neuromuscular injury, disease, or weakness. The rule will also benefit individuals with visual or other impairments who can access the lavatory but need accessible features within the lavatory. We also anticipate that the rule will indirectly benefit passengers of size and families with small children.”

FlightChic-take on Single-aisle Accessible Lavatory Rule: This is some but not enough progress

That the rule finally found itself to a final version after a substantial (6 year) delay in the review process is a welcome development.

However, because the 1-year requirement for the implementation of accessible lavatories on new aircraft only applies to “clean-sheet design” aircraft, OEMs could continue to introduce versions of existing aircraft (such as the Boeing 737-NEXTWhatever) that do not meet these requirements. I’m not randomly picking on Boeing, but Airbus already has accessible single-aisle aircraft lavatory options baked into its A220s and on the A320 family with the Space Flex Lav feature.

Lavatories SpaceFlex v2 Cabin Option by Airbs and Zodiac Aerospace/Airbus
Lavatories SpaceFlex v2 Cabin Option by Airbus and Zodiac Aerospace/Airbus

In this writer’s opinion, it is a failure of the rule not to require that airlines equip new aircraft orders with compliant lavatories where they are already available in the market. It seems senseless to continue to allow the introduction of non-compliant new aircraft over the next decade, which will then not be required to be retrofitted when the rule finally takes effect.

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