Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek. 

Lately, I've become fascinated by airplane bathrooms.

On some planes, they're now tiny. On others, they don't get cleaned.

And now a tale emerges of a Christmas Day American Airlines flight from Dallas to London Heathrow that went awry. It endured malfunctioning bathrooms 4 hours into its eight-and-a-half-hour journey.

First reported by View From the Wing's Gary Leff, the issue seemed to have been that four of the bathrooms on a Boeing 777-300 ER became non-functional.

One bathroom was clogged and it's connected to three others.

Leff reports that Flight Attendants decided that passengers congregating at the bathrooms constituted a security risk and the plane turned back, landing at JFK two hours later.

The congregation issue is a post 9-11 idea. You often hear Flight Attendants make an initial announcement that congregating around bathrooms is verboten because, well, who knows why.

So I asked American whether the alleged congregation on this flight was a security issue.

The airline denied it.

Instead, a spokesperson told me: 

The crew said that lines were forming to use lavatories, and they were concerned for passenger comfort -- most likely if the other lavatories would go out also.

Ah, so you see. The Flight Attendants feared passengers would be uncomfortable.

I've not seen airlines be so concerned about passenger comfort of late. This, therefore, is a fascinating -- and possibly even revolutionary -- posture. Especially, some might grunt, from an airline that's been a touch enthusiastic about reducing comfort on its planes.

The American spokesperson told me that the four bathrooms began to malfunction inflight, but the clog was only discovered when the plane landed in New York.

I remain a touch perplexed. 

Here we have a plane around halfway to its destination and the Flight Attendants were worried that eight more bathrooms would suddenly go on the blink?

And if they were secretly concerned about the (security or comfort) risks from congregation, why didn't they give passengers a rule that, say, only two people could stand in line at any one time? 

People can be quite obedient, knowing the possibilities are very limited on flights.

Earlier this year, I wrote about a United Airlines flight on which a Flight Attendant freely admitted that a bathroom was out of action because it hadn't been cleaned.

Passengers meekly accepted the situation -- and this was on a narrowbody plane, with only two bathrooms at the back.

Moreover, I hear that toilet democracy works quite well on planes these days.

Only a few days ago, I offered the tale of another United flight that had a couple of malfunctioning bathrooms.

The captain held a vote among passengers, to see whether they'd agree to confine certain of their bodily functions to specific bathrooms. A majority agreed and the flight took off.

In the case of the American flight, the passengers were provided with hotels and rebooked on flights that left December 26.

Could it be, then -- as American suggests -- that the Flight Attendants feared all the other toilets would cease to work? (And what does that say about their confidence in American's maintenance capabilities?)

Or did someone make an excessively nerve-based, conservative decision?

At the time of writing, the plane is still on the ground. The source of the clog, the airline tells me, hasn't been found.

Published on: Dec 26, 2018