people sitting in an airplane

Put the hard hitting election news to the side. There’s huge news in from United Airlines, and it may change every flight for months, or even years to come. From Curb Your Enthusiasm to Bridesmaids, the conundrum of aircraft lavatory etiquette has puzzled and frustrated airline passengers for years.

Everyone hates waiting in a long line when they’ve gotta go, and the first class lavatory is usually free, but can economy passengers walk past everyone in their bulkier leather seats and use it, or is that taboo? United, at least for now, says go for it.

United Weighs In On Airplane Lavatories

United, never a stranger to controversy in the skies, has weighed in on the issue of using the lavatory in your cabin. You no longer have to, at least for now.

United never heavily modified on board seating measures in response to covid-19, so it’s an odd move, 6+ months into the pandemic. Unlike the vast majority of US airlines, United never guaranteed blocked middle seats, or set a max capacity on flights, even during the height of the pandemic.

Now, it will have an even greater overlap of passengers, as economy cabin and business or first class cabin passengers mix to use lavatories. In recent months, many airlines moved to a back to front boarding system which boards business class last.


Prior to this United move, it was at least feasibly possible for an economy passenger never to come in close proximity to a fellow guest in the front of their cabin, or another cabin, and equally feasible for a business or first class passenger to never be in close proximity to a passenger in the economy cabin.

United says this measure has been reviewed by the Cleveland Clinic, and the goal is an admirable one, even if it leaves much to be desired. People waiting around lavatories in close proximity doesn’t help with social distancing or hygiene, but then again neither does operating flights at up to 100% capacity, which United has chosen to maintain. It’s hard to see how one is different to another.

In line with his etiquette notes, View From The Wing notes American Airlines also has a more flexible policy in this regard to most airlines. Customers on AA are able to use lavatories from other cabins on domestic flights and also flights departing the USA. The message on both airlines is to use the same cabin when possible, but if not, go fo rit.

As a frequent passenger in both cabins, I don’t quite know how to feel.

Significant scientific studies suggest transmission of covid-19 on planes is extremely low, but at its very lowest when you’re actually seated with a mask on. The most worry involves non aerosol transmission by touching surfaces, such as those of a lavatory door handle or anywhere inside the lavatory itself which are harder to control.

Customers paying a significant premium to sit in first or business class are unlikely to be happy about hundreds of potentially infected people being eligible to use the often empty lavatory and come in close proximity as they brush past during the flight. Empty lavatories are one of the few remaining perks of flying up front domestically.

Even economy passengers may not be too cheerful, with all the extra action up and down the aisles as fellow passengers travel further distances, in both directions.

Surely a technology based solution using seat back screens – oh wait, most airlines removed them – or any queue system would help. I’ve been on more than a few flights where cabin crew simply ask people to remain seated until the lavatory is green, so as not to stand around. It’s not perfect, but neither is United’s plan.

How would you feel as a passenger in either cabin?

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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  1. Not too happy about this change as a 1K with United. A large part of my reason for maintaining 1K status and paying $$$ for flights is more privacy and space. With Polaris lounges being closed, mileage devaluations, not crediting full value of partner tickets, not taking flight distance into account and now this bathroom sharing situation makes it less and less likely that I will aim for 1K next year. Not being elitist at all as I’m flying coach too.

    1. Totally with you. I’m a traveler in both cabins often. I value it when I’m in first, and respect it when I’m in coach. I think United was playing the most aggressive game of the US airlines to make loyalty purely about finance (make corporates happy) and it’s now causing some fury.

  2. United has always been at the bottom of my list of legacy US airlines. This is just another proof point of how after being in the business so long, they still don’t “get it”.
    If I am in the front (business or first) of the plane I am trying to limit my contact with other passengers during the pandemic. Having a parade of fellow passengers strolling through to the lavatory is completely contradictory.
    United continues to be one of my “no fly” carriers.

  3. If the FA’s have anything to say about, I’m pretty sure the last thing they want to do is to is play musical chairs and jockeying around the serving carts in the aisles as Mr or Mrs Kyoodle and their kids traipse by. Now F-class passengers will have the added attraction of feeling the stare over their shoulders or a wailing baby waiting for their diaper to be changed. Lovely.

  4. Absolutely opposed to this. Unless there is a change, my next three booked United flights in first class will be the last revenue tickets I shall buy. Then, I’ll use up my MileagePlus Miles (probably on Lufthansa) and seek alternative airlines. Do they intend this policy to extend to overnight transatlantic flights? May I expect to be awoken throughout the night by diaper-changing parties from the nearby bassinets?

  5. Screwnited has karmic destiny for stupid decisions. They do get credit for being creative finding the ‘next one’.

    From a biology and population health perspective, this “potty walk” is just wrong.
    From a weary professional traveler perspective, this is just another concrete example of how loyalty and spend become meaningless, as the unwashed peasants march up from steerage to soil your lovely, semi-private potty.


  6. I don’t see any mention that its only applicable on USA Domestic Flights. I understood there is a Ban on International flights for passengers moving Cabins. I have already stopped booking American Airlines A319 flights which only have 2 Rows of First Class seats, where the small First Class Cabin has now just become a waiting area for Coach Passengers lining up for the Rest Room, even the FA has a problem with even Basic Service in First/Business Class.

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