Are Bathroom Lines Allowed on International Flights? The Definitive Answer

When I wrote up my recent trip to Cancún last week, the big discussion centered around the fact that we weren’t allowed to line up to use the bathrooms (aka lavatories, or lavs). I received a ton of back and a lot of contradicting information, so I decided to do some research. Are you allowed to line up to use the lav on an international flight? You should be.

To recap my experience, one of the flight attendants onboard my Southwest flight announced that due to “international law,” people were not allowed to line up for any of the lavs on the aircraft. There were a lot of people needing to go to the bathroom, and it was chaotic trying to figure out how to do it without lining up.

Someone who says she was that flight attendant on my flight (and I have no reason to believe otherwise) wrote in the comments that the rule should have only applied for flights returning to the US and she was mistaken. There wasn’t a peep about it on my flight back, however, and I lined up with no problem. I decided I needed to figure this out once and for all, so I reached out to several airlines.

First, we can clear up one thing. There is a rule that says you can’t line up to use the lav near the cockpit. Presumably this rule is meant to keep gangs from forming and pushing their way into the cockpit, intending to do harm. That’s stupid, but it is what it is. On most airlines (not Southwest) it’s not a big deal since they have multiple lavs in the back, and the front lav is for First Class anyway. But if the “no line” rule applies to all lavs on any particular international flight, that’s pretty terrible.

I naturally started with Southwest on this. According to spokesperson Cindy Hermosillo:

There is a U.S. Security directive for international flights returning to the U.S that states that Passengers may not congregate in any area of the cabin. Here’s a look at the public announcement our Flight Attendants are required to make on international flights returning to the U.S.: Due to security regulations, Customers may not congregate in any area of the aircraft cabin, especially around the lavatories. Thank you.

To clarify, this directive only applies for international flights returning to the U.S. On your particular flight from LAX-CUN, this directive (and PA) does not apply.

As I learned from American spokesperson Michelle Mohr later, this directive is the same one that says on international flights inbound to the US, you are only allowed to use the lavs in your ticketed cabin (except for those with special needs). It’s a goofy rule, but it is indeed a rule.

That means it definitely does not apply to flights leaving the US, like the one where I encountered it, but even on return flights, enforcement still seemed to be open to interpretation. Cindy did add, “…we train our Employees to use good judgement in all interactions with Passengers.” Alrighty then.

I went to other airlines more experienced with international flying to see what they said. The general consensus is that this is an issue of how you interpret “congregating.” And pretty much no other airline considers lining up to use a lav to be a form of congregating. According to Charlie Hobart, spokesperson for United:

…there isn’t [a rule] specifically restricting customers from queuing up for the lavatories. Depending on the circumstances, we’ll let customers wait outside the lavatories but if it gets too congested or if there’s a safety concern we’ll ask them to return to their seats.

That’s completely sensible, and Delta echoed a similar sentiment. This, from spokesperson Liz Savadelis:

There is a clear difference between congregating and queuing for the lav. We train flight attendants to know this difference as part of our efforts to create a great customer experience and our focus on safety.

While I still can’t say this rule makes sense to me, I understand it better in this context. This is the rule that’s supposed to prevent people from gathering together in the back galley in order to plot a way to take over the airplane and run it into the Statue of Liberty on the way into Newark, as unlikely and unnecessary as that may be. It’s not supposed to prevent anyone from getting in line to go the bathroom.

I’d say that closes the case. It seems to me that Southwest needs to beef up its training to make sure any flight attendant working international understands how this should work. A line for the one lonely lav in the back of the Southwest 737-700 is perfectly fine (and generally necessary) on any flight. Beyond that, flight attendants can use their own judgment to see if a situation appears to be unruly, dangerous, or concerning. At least, that’s how those airlines with a lot more international experience view this.

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