How Long Can You Hold It? American Flies New York to Chicago With No Working Lavatory

In late April American flight 3215 operated by an Embraer E140 regional jet from Westchester, New York to Chicago O’Hare flew without a working lavatory.

“The captain was apologetic, and furious, when he told the passengers that American couldn’t get maintenance to come out and fix the toilet,” said the passenger, whom the Tribune did not identify on her request. “The pilot said he wanted to wait, but they (the airline) told him to leave now or they would cancel the flight,” the passenger added.

It turns out that the FAA requires lavatory access within two hours of a ground delay and to meet the needs of disabled passengers on widebodies. Beyond that operating without functional lavatories is at the discretion of the airline.

In this case American viewed the options as:

  • Cancelling the flight and ferrying it to O’Hare for maintenance

  • Allowing passengers to fly as-planned without a lavatory, and with advance warning.

It seems to me the choice should have been offered for passengers to be treated as though they were involuntarily denied boarding.

One passenger probably shouldn’t have made the trip:

“I felt so badly for this one man,” she said. “I saw him when we landed. He rushed off toward the bathroom at the back (of the plane). He said, ‘I am incontinent. I was going to change (undergarments) and I couldn’t.'”

Would you take a 2.5 hour flight with no working lavatory? How long is too long?

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. No, I wouldn’t have taken this flight. Typical airline BS! I have family members who take very potent diuretics. They go to the bathroom constantly! This would have presented a very big problem for us! Shame on American Airlines for doing this! If this was a 1 hour flight, years back those planes didn’t have toilets. But everyone knew upfront! Yeah, the flight is only 2 hours, but taxiing and other delays, can easily add an hour or more to the total time, block to block! So, no we wouldn’t have taken this flight. American Airlines was very wrong to do this to passengers.

  2. Legally, this plane should not have been allowed to fly. They should have put everyone on other airlines flights, and paid for their own maintenance issues. As is, they probably told everyone this is your only way out, or you can fly in a day or 2.

  3. Flew once on a USAir CRJ200 from IND to PHL with an inoperable lavatory. I wasn’t aware until the captain made an announcement onboard. We were delayed about 30 minutes as they let people back into the terminal to use the restroom prior to take off. Option was to fly without a working toilet or stay in Indy until the next available flight the next day. No one got off the plane.

  4. I agree with joelfreak, the pilot made the wrong decision. There are two airlines flying this route with a combined load of 6 daily flights, the passengers should have been re-accomodated on a United plane if another AA plane wasn’t available.

  5. This is a case where you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t, since it is the last AA flight out of HPN to ORD for the day (it’s actually the last AA flight out of HPN on Saturdays, period–they run an evening flight to ORD weekdays, but not on weekends); thus, canceling the flight would have involved a multi-hour delay as they would need to charter a bus, wait for it, drive everyone over to LGA, and then get them on other flights (at least it was a Saturday, so there would likely have been seats available).

    Thus, I’m fine with AA running it as a scheduled flight rather than a mx ferry, since otherwise you’d have ~30 folks inconvenienced rather than just a handful. Plus, if there are only a few folks who don’t want to travel on the HPN flight, then you can just give them taxi vouchers rather than having to charter a bus, a much easier proposition to work with.

  6. Some people have important commitments that rely on a plane operating on schedule. I would hate to sacrifice a connecting flight, a business appointment, or a vacation for an issue that doesn’t impact my safety. Operate the flight with the broken lav and offer later flight without penalty for passengers that don’t think they can take it.

  7. This season opening game at Wrigley made national news, due to some bathrooms not being ready. Fans, probably guys, were using their beer cup to go and leaving the cups in some corner.

  8. I would almost certainly take the trip, but forego the beverage service. Since they announced it before boarding, people presumably had the chance to take care of it in the airport. I would say, though, that anyone declining to fly should have been offered a seat on the next available flight.

  9. I had this happen recently on a short RDU-LGA flight, about 1hr2m. It was tolerable but everyone was a little nervous, cabin crew especially. 2 hrs+ is not doable. Human bodies are unpredictable and I would not be comfortable with spending that much time without even being able to take a piss if needed.

  10. I can hold it like a champ, and would have taken that flight and expected it to operate on schedule.

    I don’t remember the last time I used the lav on any flight within the US. Overseas flights where I’m sucking down the beer/wine in J/F? Different story.

    BTW, it’s SOP for REGIONAL airlines to defer inop lavs and fly the plane.

  11. We flew IAD-BHM in a UA Express RJ under the same conditions some years back.

    Even lived on the edge and accepted a free plastic of wine, after using the terminal facilities in the terminal before taking off.

    The pilot was not impressed with the company but felt he had no choice but to fly.

  12. I should add in grudging fairness to UA that everyone was given the option if overnight accommodations and first flight available the following morning. We flew and only one person deplaned.

  13. It’s a bad choice to have to make, but the captain made the right call. If passengers are pre-warned and given the choice to skip the flight and receive the same compensation as a maintenance-related cancellation, I think it’s the only reasonable solution. Unless you have a specific medical condition, or bad luck, most humans can go a couple hours without needing a bathroom. So it’s a better choice that having your travel plans all screwed up.

    That said, if the flight were 3-hours, I would just cancel because that’s a bit long for everyone to “hold it.” No reason to conduct a on-board science experiment. 🙂

  14. 2.5 hours is a long time, but if folks were given the option to “pump the bilges” in the terminal, or wait for however long it took to be accommodated, it seems reasonable. Of course, on a recent flight DFW-BWI (diverted to PIT), there was one dude, not even in the F cabin that must’ve used the lav a dozen times. I’m not really what to make of that one… But, I think most normal folks, if given the choice, will prefer to make the trip on schedule… and if they can’t, then get accommodated. I know that sounds callous, but, I dare any of those people to attempt to figure out how to use a regional jet’s lav. (at 6’1, I’d have to do yoga just to fit in one!)

  15. Once I drove all night into JFK, plopped down into JFK-SFO PS service, and immediately went to sleep after boarding. After a long time to push back, and a long taxi, I woke up, and I really needed to go. I guess coffee and the relaxation weren’t helping much. With every turn on the taxi (which must have total-led 40 minutes), I concluded surely we’d be taking off soon. I’d just wait until in the air, ignoring 10k feet, and it’d be fine. But when we finally reached the take off area and paused, I was at my whits end. Sweating and bopping around, I’m certain. I got up and slowly headed to the lav, and the FA picked up the phone to call the pilot. I said “sorry” but proceeded unimpeded, because there’s basically a point of no return on take off. I proceeded then at an angle into the bathroom experiencing the best piss of my life. It was a little embarrassing, I suppose, but I was about to explosively piss my pants otherwise. There was something neat about breaking the normal convention and script that we’re made to always follow.

  16. Oh gee wizz. American Airlines is in the news. If it’s yellow, let it mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down.

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