Hey DOT- Airplane bathrooms suck! Disabled veteran’s lawsuit says ‘Enough is Enough’

Phil Briggs
August 09, 2018 - 10:24 am


Anyone who has flown lately would agree- the bathrooms are ridiculously small.

But for passengers who use wheelchairs, they’re a nightmare.

Tom Wheaton, a Navy veteran and current Treasurer of the Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA), is doing something about it.  And if his lawsuit against the Department of Transportation is successful, airline passengers everywhere will have a new hero.

The story begins in Australia in 1988, when Wheaton, a Sailor aboard the USS Fort Mchenry was struck by a car while exploring Perth. The accident left him paralyzed.  “It’s ironic, that I had hopes of becoming a Dispersing Clerk (a Navy job which manages finances and inventory) and now 30 years later, I’m the Treasurer for PVA, so it’s nice that it’s come full circle,” said Wheaton.

Now he flies regularly- but at great personal cost.  He explained how he must limit the amount of food and drink he consumes just to ensure that he won’t have to use the bathroom in flight.  And even with this routine he still lives in absolute fear while flying, “It’s a phobia of mine, that once I’m out of that wheelchair, and seat-belted in, that there are no issues.  I can tell you it’s an uncomfortable feeling knowing that if any bladder or bowel issues happen, it’s humiliating and embarrassing. It’s happened to me once, so I do a lot of praying … and I know there are droves of my peers that do the same.”

Today's single-aisle airplane bathrooms are ridiculously small- only 24 inches wide. While a standard wheelchair is about 26 inches wide and 42 inches deep.

Though it was a joke for actors David Spade and the late Chris Farley in the classic movie Tommy Boy ... for the disabled, it's no laughing matter.

And even with the gestures, airlines make to give preference to disabled passengers, the unintended consequences actually cause greater distress. “I can tell you on the flights from the West coast to the East coast, it’s very difficult to regulate your fluids and make sure you’re squared away.  You get early boarding, but then you’re stuck in that seat early, and usually until everyone deplanes.  So if you’ve got to catch a connecting flight that’s a bigger issue.  You’ve got to wheel yourself to the bathroom, where 9 times out of 10, there’s a business traveler changing clothes in the stall.”

So he has taken the fight for bigger bathrooms (and the larger issue of dignity for disabled passengers) directly to the Department of Transportation, in the form of a lawsuit.

“I just recently got involved with this lawsuit, but I can tell you Paralyzed Veterans of America, has been at this since 1986, with the Air Carrier Access Act.”

The 1986 law called for regulations to ensure handicapped individuals could fly on airlines. The regulations required accessible bathrooms on planes with 2 aisles, but they deferred action for narrower, single-aisle planes.

Have officials really been waiting over 20 years to take action for the type of planes the majority of Americans use every day?

“There’s been promise after promise that we are going to get regulations for single-aisle planes,” Wheaton explained. “The years and decades go by and nothing happens. It was this time last year, that the DOT said they were going to issue new [bathroom] regulations, and that July was their deadline.”  

Wheaton described how after missing their own self-imposed deadline, they told him that the subject wouldn’t even be discussed again until 2019.

“So our lawsuit is saying, listen ‘enough is enough’. We’re not going to wait more decades for this to happen … and we’re pressing them to stand up to their own ideals.”

Connecting Vets reached out to the Department of Transportation for comment, but a spokesperson said they could not comment on pending litigation.

Wheaton explained he was unsure of where the case currently stood but added, “I have not heard anything recently, but PVA and other advocacy organizations are working tirelessly on this.  And that’s why we’ve gotten to the point that it’s time for a lawsuit, to keep them accountable and keep them moving forward.”

If this case moves forward, resulting in larger airplane bathrooms, passengers across the nation will once again be thankful for a military veteran.

Contact us about this article, or share your story at GetHelp@ConnectingVets.com.