When a crash test dummy-sized human doesn’t really fit in the lav

The onward march of densification on aircraft shows few signs of abating. Your author recently had the opportunity to experience that crunch on board a JetBlue Airbus A321 featuring the new Space-Flex v2 galley/lavatory option. It was not a comfortable experience.

For testing purposes, I chose the more centered of the pair of lavs, which sit adjacent to each other in the rear-most section of the aircraft. I quickly found myself wedged between the wall and the hand rail. And though I am what might be considered “average build” – similar in size to a crash test dummy – I really didn’t fit inside this lavatory when facing straight.

My shoulders are touching on both sides here, and I’m not especially large.

Twisted sideways I did fit, of course. I turned around and took a seat (on the closed lid of the toilet for photo purposes) to see how the space works.

There is a small cutout at the knees under the sink that adds a smidgen of space back but, for the most part, my first impression of the lav was accurate: it is TIGHT.

While stretching out in the galley I noticed another passenger walk back to use the facilities. In this particular cabin layout there is a third available lav, forward of the rear exit door that is a “normal” size for an A320 family aircraft. The regular lav was occupied, while the other two were available, but the passenger waited until the larger lav became available; it was clear he’d played this game before and knew the winning move.

At least one of the driving factors behind the development of Space-Flex (both v1 and v2) is noble. The solution is not just about adding more seats to an aircraft but also about providing an accessible lavatory arrangement on a single-aisle aircraft. That’s not required by law (at least not yet in the US market) but with smaller planes serving ever-longer routes (e.g. the 737 MAX is the backbone of Norwegian’s latest TATL expansion) the need to accommodate all passengers, including those who arrive in wheelchairs, is very real.

Unlike Space-Flex v1 – which features a swinging partition between two lavatories to accommodate passengers with reduced mobility – Space-Flex v2’s lavatories have a fixed partition, and a wheelchair-bound passenger must transfer to a tip-up seat and then to the toilet seat.

It’s difficult to imagine how a person with reduced mobility will navigate from the tip-up “transfer seat” to the toilet in the space I experienced. Image: Airbus presentation, courtesy DOT web site.

Commenting on a prior RGN article about Space-Flex v2, a person who identifies as a flight attendant says: “The toilets themselves are ridiculously small. The article mentions the disabled access is by sliding onto a flip down seat and then onto the toilet unassisted. If the person is any bigger than a child then this feat is impossible. I’m sure they did lots of testing but anyone of average size would slip off the small slide seat as it is only about 5 or 6 inches at its widest point.”

The challenges with the new lavs are not just for passengers. One major airline rejected the new design in 2015, citing concerns about trash collection, cart positioning within the limited galley space and navigating between jump seats, carts and the lav doors. At that time the objections were mostly theoretical. But, as mentioned, as Space-Flex v2 goes into commercial service, some crew are raising their own alarms based on real world experience with the product.

Between those concerns and other needs including jump seat mount points on one of the two lavs, JetBlue tweaked its densification plan for A320s, changing from 165 planned seats (announced in November 2014) to 162 as of January 2016. Company VP of brand & product development Jamie Perry described the change as an optimization of options, saying at the time, “We had to optimize the various issues, the most seats, the most storage space, the most work space, the most seating space for crew, the best access to lavs for the customers; all these things are not necessarily pulling in the same direction.” That isn’t much of a consolation, of course, as the lavs will still be the tiny spaces that the SpaceFlex v2 kit offers.

But I guess we can take some solace in the fact that it could be even worse.

A SpaceFlex v2 Lav in the process of being converted to use for a wheelchair-bound passenger

Two lavs, side-by-side, are part of the Space-Flex v2 galley/lav solution.

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19 Comments

  1. This is my biggest pet peeve with the “new normal”. I travel now with Imodium because sitting down in not an option for a big person like myself. Peeing standing up is challenging enough! It’s almost inhumane.

    • There is a law for widebodies; but I think it was written when single aisle aircraft rarely made cross-country or transatlantic journeys (think DC-9, MD-80, 737 Classics); even the 757s rarely made the those long journeys and even so the lavs were usable. But now with the space premium and the thinning of seats and now of lavs and A321s, 737-MAXs going transcon, TATL 757s, etc. now the norm I think the reg is outdated and a ACCA, a REAL ACCA compliant lav like the old Continental 767 mid-cabin lav (probably not as big but close) will have to be mandated. With a skinny lav next to it; but to be honest; those lavs are way to small anyway and there should be a minimum size instituted anyway…being able to urinate and eliminate for everyone should not be for contortionists only.

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