Doing your business 35,000 feet up in the air is not just a cramped, uncomfortable experience. The whole process—when can I go and how do I physically reach my destination—is fraught with rules, regulations and etiquette principles to consider.
If you know you’re gonna have to go, though, let’s do it properly.
Before you board
Proper airplane bathroom etiquette really begins before you step foot on the plane. You woke up especially early, which required extra caffeination. The mere thought of sitting in the “sky desert” that is an airplane already has you all thirsty and you’ve dutifully hydrated before your flight. That’s great. Pee before you board.
You’re standing around in the airport anyway, waiting for them to call your boarding group, unproductively inching your way toward the gate. I know, I know; you don’t have to go. My eight-year-old son doesn’t have to either, but experience tells me that if you try, something will come out. And if your flight is short enough, you may have eliminated your need to use the airplane bathroom entirely, making the line shorter for the rest of us and designating you as the flight’s unsung hero.
Takeoffs and landings
If your plane is about to—or already is—taking off or landing, you are shit-outta-luck. (Resisting that was futile.) You cannot go; you must hold.
Pilots actually aren’t legally allowed to take off if someone is in the bathroom. It’s dangerous. Business Insider describes why:
They are the two most (relatively) dangerous times of the flight. Passengers must remain in their seats and with a clear, unobstructed escape route.
In the event that a pilot must perform a hard landing, nobody would want to be trapped in the toilet. There aren’t any safety features in the lavatory (like a seatbelt) that would keep a passenger in place. However, there are many potentially painful sharp edges. In the event of an emergency evacuation, a passenger could also become trapped in the restroom and unable to escape.
When the seatbelt light is on
The seatbelt light really is on for a reason—to tell you there’s some possible turbulence ahead and it’s safest to be sitting and buckled. If the light goes on and you’ve got to go, wait a while to see if it turns off.
From time to time, you may find yourself on a flight where the pilot is a bit heavy-handed with the light. Sometimes it seems like the thing is on the whole damn time and you haven’t felt so much as shiver in the air, let alone risked bouncing around the cabin. If you’ve really got to go and the light seems to be on for the long haul, go ahead and make your move.
If you’re a rule follower, you may feel the urge to ask the flight attendant whether it’s okay for you to go real quick. Don’t bother. They have to say no—it’s a liability thing. Even if you don’t ask, they very well may remind you that the light is on (this is their job). Just say, with a hint of panic in your eyes, that you totally understand and you’ve been waiting for the right opportunity, but unfortunately, you’ve run out of time. Unless the turbulence really is bad, they’re unlikely to push the issue.
If they do insist you sit down, though, go sit down. They know more than you do.
If your neighbor is asleep
You’re finally up in the air, the snack cart has come through and the seatbelt light is mercifully off. All of this means that the person next to you is now fully asleep and you are trapped. Most of us would probably be pretty understanding and accommodating of a wake-up tap from someone who’s gotta go, but the decision can be especially tricky on a red eye or a longer flight when you know you’ll likely have to go multiple times. Do you wake them up, hold it or … maybe climb over?
Etiquette expert Jo Bryant tells The Telegraph that you could try climbing, but there are some caveats:
“If your neighbor is asleep, think before you climb. You need to be confident there is enough room to get past comfortably, without using the headrest in front as a lever. If you decide to go for it, then always face forward and keep physical contact to a minimum.”
She adds: “If in doubt, however, it is always better to wake them and ask to get out rather than attempt to squeeze past with the risk they may wake mid-climb.”
I’m unlikely to attempt the climb, so I’ll heed Bryant’s other advice: “One frequent-flyer friend always asks her neighbor before take-off what their preference is, which perhaps is the most sensible and least embarrassing option of all.”
The airplane bathroom line is less of a “line” and more of a “just find a corner to wedge yourself into so that you’re not in the way but are clearly waiting for a turn” situation.
Make a mental note of who was waiting ahead of you so you know your proper place in line, and—why does this not go without saying??—don’t lean on someone’s seat while you wait. Keep your elbows tucked into your sides, avoid invading the flight attendants’ area or blocking their movements, and get in and out as quickly as you can.
If you’ve got to go but you can already see the area around the bathroom resembles a traffic jam, wait until a few people clear out before you head over.
These people get to cut ahead of you
Elderly folks and pregnant women go ahead of you. Always. Not just on airplanes, but especially on airplanes.
Also, little kids go ahead of you. I don’t care if you’ve been holding it for 90 minutes; when a little kid (say, age 6 and under) has to go, they have to go right now and they will have an accident and then you’ll really be a jerk. Have some compassion for the parents—who have probably also been holding it for 90 minutes and will continue to hold it—and let the kid cut in line.