Is It Against The Law To Stand In Line For The Bathroom On A Plane?

Is it against the law to stand in line to use the bathroom on a plane?  I’ll admit, when I saw a blog post titled this, I was interested in the answer.  My curiosity was due mostly to the author.  You see, Cranky Flier is one of the truly knowledgeable bloggers in the travel space.  He understands some pretty detailed facts about the aviation industry.  I’ve always enjoyed reading his blog and was curious what he had to say on the subject of “illegal lavatory lines”.

Cranky Flier takes it past the question of whether you need to follow instructions given by the crew.  I felt pretty sure I knew the answer to that one.  Ignore a crew member or get belligerent, you may find yourself behind bars.  Brett researched the answer about whether standing in line is actually breaking the rules.  Answer, it kind of is:

There is a U.S. Security directive for international flights returning to the U.S that states that Passengers may not congregate in any area of the cabin. Here’s a look at the public announcement our Flight Attendants are required to make on international flights returning to the U.S.: Due to security regulations, Customers may not congregate in any area of the aircraft cabin, especially around the lavatories. Thank you.

To clarify, this directive only applies for international flights returning to the U.S. On your particular flight from LAX-CUN, this directive (and PA) does not apply.

This makes sense to me, though I didn’t know it was specifically a law for rear lavatories (I did think so for front lavatories).  The US is regulating what happens when you’re on the way to the US, not when you’re flying elsewhere.

Interestingly, it is also a law that you can only use the lavatory in your ticketed cabin.  I’ve heard this announcement in the past, but wasn’t 100% sure it was law as opposed to “best practice”.  So, all those people from coach who peel back the curtain and walk to the front lav are breaking the law.

Bathroom On A Plane

Interesting Interpretation

Brett dug further and picked up an interesting distinction.  The airlines appear to be (smartly, IMO) interpreting “congregate”:

I went to other airlines more experienced with international flying to see what they said. The general consensus is that this is an issue of how you interpret “congregating.” And pretty much no other airline considers lining up to use a lav to be a form of congregating. According to Charlie Hobart, spokesperson for United:

…there isn’t [a rule] specifically restricting customers from queuing up for the lavatories. Depending on the circumstances, we’ll let customers wait outside the lavatories but if it gets too congested or if there’s a safety concern we’ll ask them to return to their seats.

That’s completely sensible, and Delta echoed a similar sentiment. This, from spokesperson Liz Savadelis:

There is a clear difference between congregating and queuing for the lav. We train flight attendants to know this difference as part of our efforts to create a great customer experience and our focus on safety.

The Final Two Pennies

What can I say?  I love splitting hairs on small details like this.  The safest course of action whenever you’re on a plane is to obey crew member instructions.  Even when they’re in the wrong, they’re right.  So, be polite when you’re standing in line for the bathroom and head back to your seat if they ask you to.  Don’t wait for them to tell you.

If you’re traveling with young kids, take advantage of when the seat belt sign goes off to take them, even if they don’t have to go.  And, when they inevitably have to go when the seat belt sign is on, apologize to the crew and be as quick as possible, assuming they don’t order you back to your seat.  As a parent who’s traveled a ton with kids, I’ve found virtually all crew members to be understanding of kids’ inopportune potty breaks if you’re polite and deferential.

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4 Comments

  1. When I was retiring from Frankfurt last year through Lufthansa, the cabin attendant announced “once the plane enters the US airspace you should always be seated in your seats standing and moving around the cabin is prohibited”.

  2. When my friend was told by the FA not to congregate by the lavatory he told her that he wasn’t congregating. One person cannot congregate. Then she got a little nastier and told him that it was against the law to congregate. He decided not to argue the fine points of the definition of the word. He sat down. Not wise to fight the power of the FA.

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