At 5-foot-8, Eddie Santos is about average size, but on a recent flight from Los Angeles to Washington, a trip to the plane's lavatory left him feeling like Gulliver in the land of Lilliputians.

"I had to twist my shoulder just to get in," he said. "It was uncomfortable."

Melody Arganda, a  retired teacher from Riverside, Calif., was able to squeeze inside, but she said the space was so narrow that her thighs brushed against the walls.

"Absolutely ridiculous," she harumphed. "If I were any bigger, I wouldn't have fit."

New smaller lavatories are about 24 inches wide, about 10 inches smaller than older standard coach bathrooms.
Washington Post
New smaller lavatories are about 24 inches wide, about 10 inches smaller than older standard coach bathrooms.

Flying has become a game of inches, with airlines trying to squeeze as many passengers as possible onto planes. They have made seats smaller, shrunk legroom, and now, as Santos and Arganda discovered on a recent cross-country flight, made the bathrooms so small that an average-size person feels squeezed.

On some of the newer planes flown by American, Delta, and United, the bathrooms in coach are just 24 inches wide. For comparison, that's roughly the width of a home dishwasher or what Kim Kardashian says her waist (but not her hips) now measures.

By comparison, the typical minimum space requirement for your downstairs  powder room is a 30-inch side-to-side clearance for a toilet. Older standard bathrooms on airplanes were about 34 inches wide.

According to the manufacturer, the new-style bathrooms free up enough space to fit six more passengers on board.

Delta was the first to introduce the smaller bathrooms in 2014, but the shift gained more attention late last year when American began using new jets equipped with the tiny lavatories. United debuted theirs in June.

At 6-foot-1, Zach Guimond, a manufacturing engineer from Iowa, has grown accustomed to being squeezed when he travels. But on a recent flight — he can't remember the model of plane —  he found himself in a bathroom so tiny that he had to lean to one side to fit inside.

"Not only was there barely enough room to turn around, the ceiling was sloped, and I couldn't even stand up straight," he said. "It was pretty uncomfortable."

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There is no federal standard for bathroom size on single-aisle aircraft, so the decision is largely left to the airlines and manufacturers.

An airline using a plane with 60 or more seats that does not have an accessible bathroom for people with disabilities must provide an onboard wheelchair to provide access so long as it has been given 48 hours' notice. Those chairs are designed specifically to help disabled passengers get to the bathroom door — not necessarily inside the lavatory.

Alison McAfee, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, which represents some of the nation's largest carriers — including American, United, Alaska, and Southwest — counters that airlines have invested billions to upgrade their fleets and give travelers more options at every price point.

Indeed, airlines boast that today's planes are lighter and more fuel-efficient, with roomier overhead bins and WiFi connections so speedy that travelers may forget they are hurtling through the air 30,000 feet above the ground. Though in many cases, passengers have to pay extra to connect or even to use those overhead bins.

"In 2017 alone, airlines invested an estimated $19.9 billion to enhance their product and customer experience, including newer larger aircraft, larger overhead bins, and various amenities that customers want when they travel," McAfee said.

But what about the tiny bathrooms?

"The idea that airlines would intentionally downgrade the flying experience or undermine safety is a flawed premise," she said.

On a United flight with the smaller lavatories, Zach Honig, editor-at-large for ThePointsGuy.com, a travel-advice website, watched passengers who had just used a bathroom.

"All of them seemed really surprised," he said. Not just by the size, he said, but by the sink, which was so tiny that it was almost impossible to emerge without getting wet. The bathrooms, Honig later wrote on his blog, were "shockingly bad."

Maddie King, a spokeswoman for United, said lavatories on the airline's newer 737s are the "industry standard." Joshua Freed, spokesman for American Airlines, said the company is "not unique and not alone" in lavatory size. Delta Air Lines declined to say how many of its planes have been equipped with the smaller bathrooms.

All said they were not aware of passenger complaints about the bathrooms. However, earlier this year, flight attendants from American Airlines raised safety concerns about the smaller bathrooms with chief executive Doug Parker.

"We certainly hear about it from passengers," said Jeffrey Ewing, national safety and security chair for the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, which represents American's flight attendants. "The bathrooms are very small. The sinks are tiny. They are not very comfortable."

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So how much have bathrooms shrunk? Airlines won't comment on specific dimensions, and manufacturers such as Boeing said the information is proprietary.

A spokeswoman for Rockwell Collins, the Iowa-based company that manufactures lavatories for the Boeing 737, said it, too, is barred from commenting on bathroom dimensions, but directed a reporter to the company's website, which details the benefits of the lavatory options offered.

Rockwell Collins’ Advanced Spacewall lavatory for airplanes provides seven additional inches of cabin space, according to the company. The space savings comes around sink level, as the wall curves in to allow a row of three seats to be tucked under the bend.
Rockwell Collins
Rockwell Collins’ Advanced Spacewall lavatory for airplanes provides seven additional inches of cabin space, according to the company. The space savings comes around sink level, as the wall curves in to allow a row of three seats to be tucked under the bend.

Its Advanced Spacewall lavatory frees "up to seven additional inches of cabin space." Airlines interested in installing the lavatories on existing aircraft could free up space for "an additional six passengers in certain configurations," the website notes.

The company indicated that the trend toward smaller lavatories is driven in part by the rise of low-cost carriers like Spirit and Allegiant that are catering to fliers who care more about price than comfort.

"As the industry continues its move toward a multitiered model of travel, so has the need for different lavatory options," said Pam Tvrdy-Cleary, a spokeswoman for Rockwell Collins.

Gary Weissel, managing officer of Tronos Aviation Consulting, said complaints about the bathrooms are unlikely to discourage airlines from trying to find new ways to add even more seats. There is too much revenue at stake.

He estimated that airlines like American could generate about $400,000 a year in additional revenue for each seat added. Weissel based his calculation on typical jet usage and the average fare.

Last fall, American told investors it could make an additional $500 million in revenue through 2021 by revamping its 737-800 jets to fit 12 more passengers and its Airbus SE A321 planes to fit nine additional travelers.

Add to that this: The vast majority of the public flies so infrequently that people may not even realize the bathrooms have gotten smaller. Even if they do, they may not care, Weissel said.