An American Airlines flight without a restroom. Is this legal?

Judy Freedman was waiting to board her American Airlines flight to Columbus when the flight crew made a troubling announcement: The aircraft didn’t have a working restroom. And American Airlines wasn’t going to do anything about it — because it didn’t have to.

A flight without a restroom?

Shifting your weight back and forth, knocking your knees together – you know what it’s like to need, but not be able, to go to a restroom.

So you try to use the restroom ahead of time when you know you won’t be able to for a while. That’s what American Airlines’ agents instructed the passengers on Freedman’s flight from Chicago to Columbus to do before they boarded the plane.

Getting there on time

American Airlines had decided that even though the restroom on Freedman’s flight didn’t work, it needed to keep to its schedule and depart on time. There would be no time for maintenance personnel to repair the toilet in the restroom; nor would American substitute another aircraft.

The lack of a working restroom wasn’t the only problem with the flight. The pilot also announced that there would be turbulence between Chicago and Columbus. Fortunately, none of the passengers became nauseated during the flight.

As Freedman notes, “How disappointing that AA’s ‘on-time’ statistics are more important than a working toilet! I think it is a matter of safety.”

No compensation from American Airlines…

Freedman wrote to American Airlines’ customer service, complaining about the lack of a working restroom. She received the following reply:

Occasionally, there is insufficient time for our maintenance crews to ensure all cabin equipment is operational and still dispatch the aircraft on time. In such instances, we may defer repairs in the interest of an on-time flight departure. Let me assure you, however, that the repair of safety-related items is never postponed.

We are sorry if you and your family experienced discomfort knowing the lavatory could not be used for the duration of this short flight. Although this isn’t a typical occurrence, a refund is not applicable since transportation was provided. Still, Mrs. Freedman, we’ll work hard to keep such incidents to a minimum.

Freedman asked for a goodwill gesture, but American’s representative replied that

While we understand your points and are sorry that [your flight] did not have a working lavatory, we do not reduce the price of a ticket or issue goodwill in this situation. The issue was not related to the safety of the aircraft and the flight had an on-time departure and arrival.

To which Freedman responded: “I posted the situation on Facebook and people responded with
comments such as ‘outrageous,’ ‘can’t be right,’ ‘unbelievable,’ ‘no way.'”

As we have previously noted, denouncing a company on social media isn’t a good idea while you’re trying to resolve a customer service issue.

…because the FAA doesn’t require it.

Freedman then asked us for help in getting a goodwill gesture from American Airlines. She wanted to know: “Is there any way you can advocate for a working bathroom? What if a pilot needed a bathroom? Are airlines fined if flights are delayed? Or is the need for strong on-time ratings more important than a working toilet?”

Good questions. But our executive director, Michelle Couch-Friedman, couldn’t give Freedman the answers she wanted.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) doesn’t require that commercial aircraft have working restrooms. Nor do airlines have to report malfunctioning restrooms to the FAA, which leaves decisions about them entirely up to the airlines. And it doesn’t fine airlines for delaying flights.

The U.S. Department of Transportation (as opposed to the FAA) requires that during prolonged ground delays, air carriers must provide passengers with working restrooms, medical attention and, within two hours of a delay, food and water. And the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) mandates that certain aircraft, usually twin-aisle, must have working restrooms for passengers with disabilities. But there are no other government regulations about working restrooms.

Up to the airlines

Each airline has its own policy about working restrooms. Last year, Delta diverted a flight with broken restrooms hundreds of miles to give passengers a break.

In contrast, an American Eagle captain chose to depart on time, although he was aware that his aircraft didn’t have a working restroom.

American Airlines’ conditions of carriage don’t obligate the airline to provide working restrooms either. The only promise American makes regarding restrooms is that “in the case of extraordinary events that result in very lengthy onboard delays, American will make every reasonable effort to ensure that essential needs of food, water, restroom facilities, and basic medical assistance are met.”

Our advocate’s advice

Friedman suggested that Freedman use our executive contacts for American Airlines to ask for a small travel voucher for her inconvenience.

That’s the last we heard from Freedman. But her story contains an important lesson: Always visit a restroom before boarding your flight, because you might not be able to go once you’re aboard the aircraft.

Which is more important on a commercial flight?

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