Bad to Worse: How a Single Clogged Toilet Caused a Boeing 777 to Abandon Its Transatlantic Journey

On Friday, United Airlines flight 59 from Frankfurt to San Francisco had to turn around when a toilet overflowed. The Boeing 777-300ER was at 30,000 feet around 70 nautical miles northwest of Amsterdam when pilots asked to enter a holding pattern to troubleshoot the lav. Half an hour later they turned back.

Apparently one of the lavatory toilets “overflowed” and what was called “the soup” spilled into the cabin, with an unbearable stench. Crew were unable to address the issue inflight.

There’s some disagreement over whether maintenance simply failed to drain or fix the issue prior to departure, or whether a passenger simply clogged the sink:

  • “Some Pass[e]ngers reported Toilet problems before Take Off. One Toilet wasn’t working at the Gate, so why did they Take Off”

  • “This was not blackwater from Lavbowls/Wasteline. This was the content from the normal drainline (Watersinks) in Bathrooms, which was blocked with parts of Vomit and some other remains.”

At some level I’m shocked this story isn’t getting more play. After all, it’s a Boeing aircraft! And United! Although of all the maintenance problems forcing a return to departure…

These types of flights don’t always even turn around. On an American Airlines flight to Hawaii once, a flight attendant simply instructed passengers to go in a bottle.

Meanwhile, the longest American Airlines flight became a biohazard in January when lavatories began overflowing with sewage, pouring out into the cabin.

American Airlines flight 293 from Delhi to New York JFK kept flying this way for “10+ hours” of the 17-hour flight after “4 lavatories flooded with sewage.” It appears that crew used Casper blankets to cover up the mess in the aisle. Video shows the refugee camp that the cabin had become, and a photo shows a lavatory sink filled with poo water.

Back in September, a Delta Air Lines flight from Atlanta to Barcelona had to turn around after a passenger let loose diarrhea all the way through the aircraft.

Passengers returned to Atlanta and waited while Delta cleaned the aircraft and found a new crew. They were sent on their way using the same plane a few hours later. Video showed the inside of the aircraft.

A month later, an American Airlines passenger pooped in the aisle.

I guess I also want to know, why does it seem like sewage in the aisle is happening so often all of a sudden?

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Surprising indeed this incident hasn’t made the media headlines! Boeing, UA, maintenance, all the Panic Porn buzzwords. I guess it is difficult to sell a stinky lavatory back up as news.

  2. While not a hard core traveler, I’ve done a bunch of trips compared to the average person and my fear was getting some kind of stomach thing while traveling. Unfortunately that finally happened in Germany last month and was a miserable day. Thankfully it didn’t happen on a flight where it would have been so much worse.

    Generally you have limited control over when you get sick unless you are doing stupid things like alcohol/drugs.

    Toilets on planes can get pretty nasty on international flights.

  3. Although I’m not sure it worked for PIA, it may be time for UA to sacrifice a goat on the edge of the ramp…………………………..
    Nothing else seems to be working.

  4. Why are people so unclever? If you are going to puke in the bathroom, pray to the porcelain (in this case stainless steel) goddess. The drain on the toilet can handle chewed food whereas the sink drain cannot. Better yet is to use any number of puke bags. I’m sure people will hand you more. Maybe the safety instructions need this to be said so as to not cause a lot of money and inconvenience.

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