ST Engineering and Acumen Design Associates have unveiled a concept for an expanding aircraft lavatory, designed for people with reduced mobility.
During a flight, crew would be able to unlatch one wall, pull out an extension into the galley and secure it to create 40 per cent more space.
It has been designed to replace existing lavatories on narrow-body aircraft, which are extremely difficult to use for anyone requiring a wheelchair or assistance from a carer.
Emma Muldoon, who uses a powered wheelchair full-time and blogs at simplyemma.co.uk, told Business Traveller she purposely dehydrates herself before flights as it will be so difficult – if not impossible – to use toilets onboard.
The standard lavatory design (below left) would fit within the current space on an A321 or B737, but the extension (below right) would create a space large enough for a passenger, a wheelchair and another person.
There is a wide corner entrance which allows a 24-inch wide wheelchair to fit through, with walls and a door then able to close fully behind the passenger and a carer.
The teams say the new toilet could be retrofitted or line-fitted onto aircraft.
The need for accessible lavatories is becoming more urgent as single-aisle aircraft travel further distances. Airbus’s upcoming A321XLR will be able to fly for more than nine hours.
“We wanted to look at all the ways we could most improve the experience of a PRM [person with reduced mobility], which to be honest right now is pretty terrible,” Daniel Clucas, senior designer at Acumen, told Business Traveller in the firm’s London office.
“Even on a widebody right now, the toilets are essentially just bigger. They don’t give you easy access, they don’t have grab handles. Doors often aren’t wide enough.”
“On a narrowbody, where you have an accessible toilet, it’s just an extra seat. You pull a curtain across, the passenger transfers from their wheelchair onto that seat, and from that onto the toilet. But it’s so narrow you can’t fit a large passenger, it’s really undignified, the wheelchair needs to be left outside.”
Their toilet has numerous grab rails, vertical, horizontal and fold-down, to aid transfers.
The sink is low and the tap is automatic, there is clear lighting and signage throughout, as well as a full-length mirror and a side-shelf for personal items.
“We had a conversation right at the beginning, to say why shouldn’t a disabled lavatory look good, as good as any other toilet someone else could go into,” said Michael Crump, Acumen’s brand experience director.
The team unveiled a prototype at the Singapore Airshow this month, and will display it at the Hamburg Aircraft Interiors Expo at the end of March.
They have tested the full-sized prototype with a group of PRMs, which led to tweaks to the design, such as adding grab handles in new places and moving the sink position.
Clucas points out that their design actually works better on a narrowbody, because there is less need for a full galley.
For airlines potentially choosing it, it’s not any bigger and doesn’t affect their seat count.
“This path [where the extension fits] needs to be kept clear anyway for take-off and landing, so it’s making use of that dead space really,” said Crump.
“It could obstruct crew when it’s out, but we’ve made sure there’s enough space for them to get around, and it would only be out for a small portion of the flight.”
The team is now working with a company to certify the design for use, a process that could take another year. Numerous tests will be required to show that it will not jam, and for procedures to be in place in case it does.
The sliders on which the extension moves are similar to those on existing business class seats with doors, according to Clucas, so engineers are becoming more used to working in this area with regards to certification.
Few countries have legislation requiring airlines or manufacturers to ensure good accessibility onboard aircraft.
An exception is the US, which since 2009 has required all airlines operating into and out of the country to fit all new aircraft with at least 50 per cent moveable aisle armrests that allow “reasonable and dignified access” into and out of a seat.
The US Department of Transportation is currently seeking input on a plan to require airlines to include one accessible toilet on all narrow-body aircraft entering their fleets, as they must on wide-bodies.
“It will be interesting to see if any airlines proactively pick up on this before legislation kicks in,” Crump said.
“Or, from a brand perspective, whether they want to be seen to be doing the right thing and being more inclusive for travellers.”
It will also be important to win over leasing companies, the team says, since those firms want aircraft that can be repurposed for different airlines. If the toilet can be shown to be future-proof, it would make sense to choose it.
There will undoubtedly be challenges ahead. In 2012, design firm Priestmangoode unveiled a concept for an onboard wheelchair that could be fitted onto a fixed aisle seat, avoiding the need for passengers to be lifted on and off regular aircraft seats.
Despite “really positive feedback” from airlines and the public, the firm says there have been no firm orders yet, and investment to get it certified will still be required.
Still, calls to make aviation more accessible and inclusive are growing, especially as more PRMs – as well as elderly people, people with temporary or invisible disabilities, and those with conditions such as dementia, autism or anxiety – travel.
According to the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), passenger numbers have increased by 25 per cent since 2014, while the number of passengers asking for assistance at airports has increased by 49 per cent.
Read more about accessibility in aviation in the March edition of Business Traveller.