Airplanes are getting more cramped. And the bathrooms are getting smaller, like the teeny-tiny ones on American Airlines 737-MAX planes.

But if a disabled U.S. veteran who is suing the U.S. Department of Transportation has any success, airline passengers everywhere might just have a new hero.

Planitiff James Thomas Wheaton Jr. is the treasurer of the Paralyzed Veterans of America. He's also a Navy veteran who served aboard the USS Fort McHenry, and who sustained a spinal cord injury in Australia in 1988, according to his bio. 

Thirty years later, he flies commercial at least once a month for his job. And he told USA Today that when he travels, he always has to plan meals and drinks so he can avoid needing a bathroom for four or five hours.

According to his lawsuit, the law says it isn't supposed to be this way. And a change could benefit not just disabled people, but all other passengers, too.

A 30-year fight

As Wheaton went on to tell the newspaper, there's a very practical problem that results from being a person with a disability, when flying on a plane that's not designed to accommodate him.

"We're kind of stuck in one seat regardless of whether we have bowel or bladder issues. If there's any issue that comes up, I can tell you now that I'm in my 50s, sometimes I have to wear special devices to make sure I don't embarrass myself in front of 300 people," he said.

So, what would make things easier for travelers like Wheaton?

According to the lawsuit, it would help if the Department of Transportation wrote regulations insisting airlines provide at least one onboard bathroom that's fully accessible for disabled people--something it arguably was required to do under a 1986 law that prohibits discrimination on airplanes on the basis of disability.

In 1990 the government went partway: ruling that airlines had to offer accessible bathrooms on passenger jets with two or more aisles--but officially delaying action on whether single-aisle planes need them as well. And here we are.

'Spring 2019'

It turns out, they weren't kidding when they said they'd delay. Twenty-eight years later, there still hasn't been a ruling.

Of course there have been interim reports and rulings and other formal delays--like the department's decision just this past spring, which the lawsuit says "moved the accessible lavatories issue to the long-term agenda," suggesting the earliest it would address the issue is "spring 2019."

Hence the court case--to try to force the federal government to move a lot faster.

Given how long this this whole thing has dragged on already, it's admittedly hard to be extremely optimistic that the disabled veterans involved could prevail. 

But if they did, it could very well have a domino effect. 

Too small for a wheelchair

Those new, much-hated airplane bathrooms we've seen so much about lately are truly tiny: 24 inches from wall to wall.

A standard wheelchair, by way of comparison, is about 26 inches wide and 42 inches deep. Even the narrow airplane aisle ones, if you've seen them, run about 17 inches wide.

It's hard to imagine that even if Wheaton and his organization win, airlines would have to retrofit current aircraft with the small bathrooms. But you can certainly imagine future aircraft configurations having additional requirements to accommodate disabled passengers.

Those in turn might make the tiny bathrooms illegal. Getting rid of them might make some passengers and flight attendants very happy--and give us something else to thank our veterans for.

Published on: Aug 4, 2018
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