Flight Attendants and Frequent Flyers Reveal the Worst Things About Airplane Bathrooms

People complain about a lot of things when they fly, from the long lines at the airport to the bizarre rules about what you can or can’t pack to the indignities of airport security. If you fly frequently enough, you’ll probably get used to all of those things. But one complaint you probably won’t get over? The sorry state of airplane bathrooms.

Read on to discover the worst and most bizarre things about airplane bathrooms, as revealed by the flight attendants and frequent flyers who still haven’t gotten used to them.

1. Airplane bathrooms rarely get cleaned

dirty bathroom of a commercial airliner

Deep cleanings are rare. | wellesenterprises/iStock.com/Getty Images

One of the most cringe-inducing facts about airplane bathrooms? They rarely get cleaned. The Huffington Post reports that according to experts, the cleaning crews who board the plane between flights don’t have enough time to give the plane a proper cleaning. That means that airplane bathrooms, along with tray tables, seatbelts, and other surfaces on the plane, rarely get a deep cleaning. That explains why the lavatories are so gross — and germ-infested.

Next: There’s an obvious effect of the infrequent cleanings. 

2. They’re full of germs

You’ll need a lot of hand sanitizer. | Elenathewise/iStock/Getty Images

Airplane bathrooms notoriously number among the germiest spots on the plane, with bathroom fixtures serving as a breeding ground for bacteria such as E. coli. Let’s just say that you’ll want to make sure to pack hand sanitizer. But there may be hope. Mental Floss reports that Boeing has developed a self-cleaning lavatory that uses ultraviolet light to kill 99.9% of all surface bacteria. The light would activate between occupancies to sanitize the space. And Boeing also thinks that future airplane bathrooms could have self-activating seats and sinks to go entirely touchless.

Next: Timing a bathroom visit takes a lot of skill. 

3. You can never find a good time to go

people on airplane

There’s never a good time to get up. | Tuned_In/iStock/Getty Images

Frequent flyers can probably sympathize with this dilemma: It’s tough to find a good time to go to the bathroom, especially if you don’t want to disturb anyone. Throw meal service and an epidemic of reclining seats into the mix, and it’s an impossible question. But one flight attendant told Express that the best time to go is when the pilot has just turned the seatbelt sign off, but before flight attendants serve beverages. Few other people will want to go at that time, and you won’t get in the flight attendants’ way.

Next: You’ll break the law if you go to the restroom at this point in the flight. 

4. It’s illegal to go if the seatbelt sign is on

Don’t get up when the sign is on. | Tisha85/iStock/Getty Images

Many frequent flyers have found themselves in the situation of needing to go to the bathroom when the pilot has switched on the seatbelt sign. But as Slate reports, it’s illegal to get up and go to the bathroom is the seatbelt sign is on. ” By the letter and number of the law, in this case 14 CFR 121.317(f), it’s illegal,” the publication notes. However, if there’s not obvious turbulence — and the plane isn’t taking off or landing — the flight attendants likely won’t stop you. Just make your move without asking permission, which they’ll deny.

Next: Airplane bathrooms are scarce. 

5. There’s one restroom for about 50 passengers

passengers board plane

Passengers board a plane | fizkes/iStock/Getty Images

Drexel Medicine reports that one of the reasons that germs are so plentiful in airplane bathrooms has to do with the sheer number of people who use those restrooms during a flight. Most planes have roughly one lavatory for every 50 passengers. And they get a lot of use since, unless you’re on a quick route, most people will need to make a pit stop. That leads us to our next complaint.

Next: This is one of the most annoying things about using the lavatory. 

6. You always have to stand in line

Women standing in a plane

There’s always a line. | DigitalVision/iStock/Getty Images

If you need to use the lavatory on your flight, chances are good that you’ll need to wait awkwardly in line, hoping that you don’t get in the way if the flight attendants need to walk past you. A long line can make for an awkward wait. And it gets particularly nerve-wracking if the flight experiences turbulence. The number of other passengers waiting outside can also make you more anxious when you get inside, with just a thin door between you and your fellow travelers.

Next: This can cause even more delays. 

7. Sometimes, you have to wait if the pilot needs to use the restroom

person fastens seat belt while sitting on airplane seat

You’ll get sent back to your seat. | eggeeggjiew/iStock/Getty Images

One Quora user notes that pilots use the same airplane bathrooms as passengers. And if you need to go at the same time that someone from the cockpit is in the restroom, you’ll have to return to your seat. For security, flight attendants move the service cart into the aisle to block passengers’ access to the restroom. It’s not until the pilot is back in the cockpit, with the door securely closed, that the flight attendants will move the cart.

Next: Think about this when you wash your hands. 

8. The tap water is gross

airplane bathroom

Airplane bathroom | VVF/iStock/Getty Images

Flight attendants and frequent flyers alike will tell you to steer clear of the drinking water on planes. That’s because that water — the same water you wash your hands in when you use an airplane bathroom — plays host to “a long list of microscopic life you don’t want to drink, from Salmonella and Staphylococcus to tiny insect eggs,” according to The Wall Street Journal. Disease-causing organisms aren’t something you want on your hands. So you can wash your hands in the bathroom sink. But use hand sanitizer, too.

Next: We pity the flight attendant with this job. 

9. On some planes, there are flight attendants who have to watch the restrooms

Flight Attendant

Flight attendant talking with a passenger | Ruben Ramos/iStock/Getty Images

One flight attendant told Vice that on some planes — large, double-decker planes, usually — you’ll see a flight attendant whose entire job is to sit near the restroom and ensure that no couples go in to try to join the mile-high club. We pity the airline employee assigned to restroom duty (as well as flight attendants on smaller planes who have to knock on the door when passengers suggest that “something untoward” might be happening inside). But having an employee stand guard doesn’t seem ideal for passengers, either. After all, nobody likes knowing that someone is waiting outside the restroom.

Next: It’s not just your imagination. 

10. Airplane bathrooms keep getting smaller

Man with his knees against airplane seat

Everything on planes keeps getting smaller. | Digital Vision/ iStock/ Getty Images

As Condé Nast Traveler reports, airplane bathrooms are going the way of legroom in economy and keep getting smaller. “As airlines ditch older aircraft (like the tried and true 747s) and order new planes, some are skimping on space in the lavatories to pave the way for more seats,” the publication notes. Some airlines have reduced the width or the height of their airplane bathrooms. But as Traveler explains, tiny restrooms can pose big problems for travelers with disabilities, passengers flying with small children, or travelers who are overweight.

Next: In fact, there are fewer regulations than you’d think. 

11. Airlines don’t have to make restrooms particularly accessible

Flight crew and passengers on board

They don’t usually prioritize accessibility. | pcruciatti/iStock/Getty Images

Condé Nast Traveler adds that even federal regulations aren’t particularly strict about how airlines should design restrooms for passengers with disabilities. The FAA has no requirements for bathrooms on single-aisle airplanes. It does require double-aisle planes to have at least one handicap-accessible restroom. But it has no rules about how bathrooms should be designed, regarding the location of the toilet or grab bars. And unsurprisingly, airlines make passenger capacity — rather than the comfort of disabled passengers — their priority.

Next: Passengers seem to forget about common sense and common courtesy. 

12. People don’t even try to keep the restroom sanitary

Couple talking on an airplane

People forget about common courtesy. | DigitalVision/iStock/Getty Images

As one flight attendant told Vice, passengers don’t even seem to try to keep airplane bathrooms sanitary. “They aren’t aware they’re in a public space and there’re other people around them,” an anonymous airline employee explains. “Those bathrooms are the most disgusting places on the planet. There’s no way these people act this way in their normal lives, but they get on a plane and go cool, I’ll just pee all over the floor and dump my peanuts right on the ground.”

Next: Children do this occasionally. 

13. Children manage to lock themselves in the airplane bathroom

Occupied bathroom sign

Occupied airplane bathroom | frontpoint/iStock/Getty Images

Children can do plenty of unpredictable things when they fly. One of the most panic-inducing? They sometimes manage to lock themselves in the airplane bathroom. Fortunately, as Express learned from a flight attendant, it’s possible to unlock the door from the outside by using a latch hidden in the sign on the door. Lifehacker reports that it’s as simple as lifting the sign and sliding the knob into the “unlocked” position.

Next: Airlines only have low-tech solutions for this task. 

14. There’s still no effective way to deodorize the lavatory

woman pinches nose looks with disgust stinks bad smell

Things never smell fresh in there. | SIphotography/Getty Images

Another annoying thing that flight attendants and frequent flyers alike hate about airplane bathrooms? Despite all the technology on planes, airlines still don’t have a high-tech way to deodorize the bathroom. In fact, Mental Floss reports that if the restroom on your flight is particularly smelly, you should just ask the flight attendants for a bag of coffee grounds, which will help absorb odors. Practical, but pretty low-tech.

Next: Airplane bathrooms have this weird feature. 

15. Airplane bathrooms still have ashtrays

No Smoking and Fasten Seat belt Sign

Airlines ban smoking, but airplane bathrooms still have this feature. | Fominayaphot/iStock/Getty Images

When they make their safety announcements, flight attendants strenuously emphasize that you can’t smoke anywhere on the plane, not even in the airplane bathrooms. But as Mental Floss points out, airplane lavatories still have ashtrays. The reason why? Federal regulations still require them. If someone does smoke, despite the bans, they’ll need a place to put out their cigarette. So having a safe ashtray may reduce the risk of fire.

Read more: Unnerving Things About Airplanes Your Airline Doesn’t Want You to Know

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