MUMBAI: Claustrophobic though it may be, once the door is shut and locked, an aircraft toilet turns temporarily into a sanctuary where a passenger can escape from the crowd and, often, lose the pretense of manners necessitated by the formality of air travel.
Unfortunately for airlines across the world, what a passenger does behind a closed toilet door can have a direct impact on their earnings. It’s the one aspect that airlines have absolutely no control over, but decides whether the aircraft will depart on time for the next flight or, worse, whether it will be grounded for toilet repairs.
“If a passenger throws any object into the toilet, like a plastic bottle, soiled diapers, a bunch of tissue papers, it could damage its vacuum flush system. Then the object has to be located, it has to be removed and the flush system repaired. The next flight is delayed, the losses are multifold,” said an airline source.
A senior AI cabin crew member said, “The older aircraft used the blue liquid chemical toilet flush system. When there was a blockage, we would pour hot water and then flush after some time and it would often clear the blockage. Now, newer aircraft such as the Boeing 777 and Boeing 787 have a vacuum flush which is advanced technology.
But once these toilets are blocked, there is nothing we can do.” When a toilet cannot be used, a log entry is made by the cabin crew. “On average, there would be 30-60 log entries a month by cabin crew about toilets that have been rendered useless by passengers who dumped bottles, rags or other such items into the commode,” he added.
It was such “toilet abuse”, as airlines describe such cases, that is suspected to have triggered the headline-grabbing fracas on Saturday’s Delhi-Chicago Air India flight. When it departed, only eight out of the 12 toilets were functioning.
En route the 17-hour flight, even the eight toilets went out of order. With no toilets to use, the over 340 passengers, including seven infants, had to stay put with bladders full till the flight landed. Whether AI maintained its toilets well remains to be seen.
The AI spokesperson was not available for comment. But irrespective of whether the toilets were maintained well, the incident has brought to fore the issue of rampant toilet abuse by passengers, especially Indians, a practice AI has been a victim of for years now.
“In August last year, AI’s Newark-Mumbai flight made an unscheduled stop in Istanbul as all the toilets were unserviceable.
But it was particularly bad in 2016 between June 5 and August 23, when the toilets left blocked by passengers delayed 14 flights to destinations such as London, Newark, Chicago and New York,” said an Air India official.
These are all long-haul flights going to destinations with passengers that one could assume know how to use a toilet properly. But the reality is quite different.
Anyone who has ever flown on an AI international flight would have seen that the toilets work when the flight departs, but as the hours fly by, there will be at least one toilet or two rendered unserviceable because of either unhygienic use or because it has been left blocked by a discarded object.
Lack of civic sense or culture gap?
An AI official said that airlines the world over face problems with clogged toilets, but not to the extent that Indian carriers do. The problem has as much to do with civic behaviour as it does with cultural differences.
Aircraft toilets are made to western specifications, with toilet papers, while Indians are habituated to using water to clean up. “Some passengers don’t have any concern for other users. They leave the toilet messy with water everywhere and worse, the paper cups and bottles used to fill water are dumped into the commode,” he added.
Airlines are, meanwhile, doing all they can to curb such practices, carrying out awareness on their use through onboard announcements, demo videos and so on, even as they continue to spend more on repairs and maintenance.