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March 05, 2009

Potty Gate, the Sequel: Will Airlines Charge for Lavatory Use?

by Barbara S. Peterson

We figured we should weigh in on the big, important news story of the week, Potty Gate. Today Ryanair confirmed that, in fact, it is dead serious about its intention to charge us "a pound . . . to spend a penny"  (guess you have to be British to appreciate the wit). Ryanair's irrepressible chief, Michael O'Leary, reasons that the Irish discounter operates mostly shorter flights and that the fee (about $1.40) "would reduce an awful lot of the unnecessary visits to the toilet that pisses so many passengers off onboard a plane."

Bad puns aside, though, his logic is flawed: If you don't want to pay for your soda or headphone, you just pass on the experience. If you're using the lav on the plane, though, chances are you don't have much of a choice. And short flights have a funny habit of getting longer--will the airline waive the fee if you're stuck on the tarmac? O'Leary's other argument, that the fees will be returned to consumers in the form of lower fares, is fatuous: Most of us would gladly pay a few bucks more in fares to keep the lavs toll-free. So what's really going on here?

As creepy as it sounds, it should come as no surprise that airlines track lavatory use aboard flights as they try to get, er, a handle on expenses. You may have noticed that flight attendants are pouring sodas in stingier quantities than ever before, and it's not just to save the costs of providing the free drinks--it's also to curb the urge to go at 35,000 feet. (It's even been suggested that salty snacks are getting scaled back for the same reason.) In a more positive vein, distracting your customers with better entertainment can work. When JetBlue launched the first flights with live TV back in 2000, it immediately noticed a sharp drop in restroom use--an added benefit it hadn't quite expected. The company later canceled plans to charge for TV use (maybe because of all that money they saved on servicing the lavs!).   

Does all that flushing really cost airlines so much? Actually, yes, to the extent that flushing uses more water, and water is incredibly heavy. Even those newer planes that use vacuum lavatories still have sinks that suck up H20. And vacuum or not, the toilets themselves are expensive and heavy; Southwest famously saved money by only putting two restrooms on its planes, not the usual three. But another justification being used for considering the pay toilet idea--that people are used to paying fees in other public places like rail stations--doesn't wash. Charging people to use a public restroom is on one level barbaric, but it does go towards defraying the cost of washroom attendants and cleaners. That doesn't apply to airplane johns, though, which aren't really tidied up till the plane lands. And judging from the ones I've seen lately, they could stand a few more sprays of Fantastik every once in a while.

Speaking of which, former JetBlue chief David Neeleman drew a lot of ridicule years ago when he suggested separate in-flight lavs for men and women. His reasoning? Men and women have what might delicately be described as differing standards of cleanliness. Neeleman was talked out of it by managers who pointed out the difficulty of managing separate lines on a narrow-body all-coach flight. But the idea has resurfaced in Europe, where, it's said, they're considering putting urinals on planes, which, one can only hope, will at least come with some privacy.

Where will all this lead? Do you have a favorite airline lav story or opinion to share?

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