Mini Object Lesson: The Airport Restroom

Conceptual airport restroom of the future layout (Transportation Research Board)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

I sometimes wonder if the most incompetent architects are given the job of designing airport restrooms. The narrow spaces that encourage collisions, that prohibit easy movement with carry-ons, and that require acrobatics to move to and from toilet, sink, towel dispenser, and waste bin. Is there any architectural space more universally botched than airport toilets?

Airport restrooms suffers from some of the same problems as the design of airports and aircraft more generally. Designed in the mid-century when air travel was expensive and rare, massive infrastructure projects like airports couldn’t have anticipated the rise in volume that would come from deregulation and consolidation in the 1980s through 2000s. Fewer passengers once traversed the narrow thresholds of airport bathrooms, and they once did so without wheeling rollaboards behind them.

But according to the Transportation Research Board (TSB), ease of passage is not a concern for most travelers. In 2015, the TSB published a “Guidebook for Airport Terminal Restroom Planning and Design” (PDF), a nearly hundred-page document full of delights like this:

The restroom should not jar travelers from their reverie. At most, they should pause as they enter the restroom and think, ‘Oh, isn’t this pleasant.’

A 2008 travelers survey cited in the report underscores the traveling public’s real concerns: cleanliness, privacy, luggage security, and ease of access. Working fixtures and towel dispensers are of more concern to flyers than the luxury of passage in and out and amidst the toilet.

In light of these findings, trends in airport restroom design have focused on cleanliness and ease of upkeep: reduced-flow plumbing, touch-free fixtures, and automated towel dispensers. (Flyers hate air dryers, it turns out, which tend to create congestion anyway.)

But the TSB does recommend some architectural revisions as well. Using traffic flow analysis to revise the quantity and distribution of toilet fixtures, for one, and installing open entryways with no doors to touch, maintain, or clean, for another. Deeper stalls that open out rather than in can better accommodate travelers maneuvering carry-ons. Some restrooms also separate toilet, washing, and grooming functions into separate “rooms,” which might help reduce congestion. (In practice it feels like it only increases the likelihood of bottlenecks, but what do I know, I just pee here.)

The TSB report ends with an appendix on the “Airport Restroom of the Future.” After a surprisingly detailed history of public toilets, the TSB concludes that gender-neutral restrooms would offer travelers the most relief. Not only would they better address evolving gender identity norms, but they would also reduce congestion, maintenance, and accessibility by foregoing the barriers that help create the constriction of today’s restrooms. The TSB’s mockup puts individual sink basins in stalls to avoid flow to a common sink area, and adds a spacious waiting area flanked by two “art vitrines.”

But I fear that this vision for future airport restrooms may never come to pass. Alas, the reverie of travel has long ceased for most leisure travelers; mere survival is the goal. After all, compared to the airline cabin, the airport toilet is roomy. It’s hard to imagine the airline industry looking kindly upon a future in which the terminal toilet is more pleasant than the gate area or the aircraft.

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