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 feedback 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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66 comments on “Are Bathroom Lines Allowed on International Flights? The Definitive Answer

  1. I am a little confused!

    I assume this only applies to airlines incorporated in the United States since only such airlines would be returning to the United States. What about airlines such as British Airways who are outbound from the United Kingdom to the United States and not returning to the United States. Not sure what is the difference between returning flights and incoming flights.


    1. This rule applies to all in-bound flights to the US…no matter whether on US carriers or foreign carriers. My guess as to why “returning to the US” was used by the various people quoted is because they were all from the US. If BA (for example) had been queried, we might have heard “heading to the US”, so some such variation.

      1. rstahl – AA-Platinum is right. The way it was stated was just because I asked US-based airlines. This applies to any international flight inbound to the US regardless of airline.

        1. I assume it is because TPTB feel that US screening is superior and pax departing from the US can be trusted while inbound travelers come with explosive underpants?

  2. Hi Brett I’m a retired UAL/COA captain that flew a lot of international flights. The rule for non congregating near the forward lav that’s near the cockpit was intended to allow the Federal Air Marshals to watch the cockpit door. They were adamant about that in their briefings. One thing that concerned them was just what you said about being gang rushed. When we moved the lav to behind Business First on the 767-400 there was no issue with lines. However we still made an announcement from the cockpit not to congregate in the forward galley, for same reason.
    My guess about lines in the rear lav on the SWA 737-700 had more to do with the FA’s using a rule intended for security as crowd control. If memory serves me right their galley is in the rear of the aircraft near their galley?
    I enjoy your blog and look forward to it everyday. Keep up the good work

    1. Thanks gander01. Hadn’t thought about the air marshall bit, though it still seems fairly silly to me.

      Yes, on Southwest, the lav is at the very back in the middle, so you walk through the galley. It’s a pretty inconvenient setup to be sure.

      1. What’s “silly” about Air Marshall unobstructed view of cockpit door and its surrounding area. Seems more than reasonable to me.

  3. The thing is, some flight attendants think people will believe anything they say, and they know that if someone disobeys their instructions, then the airline food definitely WILL hit the turbine. Over the years I’ve heard people being told many times that It’s a federal regulation that all passengers must be seated while the serving carts are in the aisles.

    On the other hand, I remember talking to a FA once about regulations she *wished* existed. I think “all children and adults who act like children must be in their seats with their seat belts fastened and heavily sedated as soon as the cabin doors are closed and secured” was among the wished-for regulations.

  4. “Presumably this rule is meant to keep gangs from forming and pushing their way into the cockpit, intending to do harm. That’s stupid,”

    Yeah, because that’s never happened before.

    1. It hasn’t happened since 9/11.

      I agree with Bruce Schneier: There is one (and only ONE) thing that has been done since 9/11 that has truly made air travel safer: Armored cockpit doors. Everything else is just theater.

      1. “It hasn’t happened since 9/11.”

        Which was a mere fifteen years ago and killed 3000 Americans. Armored cockpit doors are the most important thing, but I don’t see how it’s “stupid” to stop someone from gathering at that door and potentially trying to get through it.

        1. And just having a rule and announcing it stops the bad guys from aggregating?

          Perhaps instead of retrofiting the cockpit doors we could just have had a rule that pax aren’t allowed to open the door.

          1. “And just having a rule and announcing it stops the bad guys from aggregating?”

            It allows the crew to step in and stop a group from creating a crowd and then springing a surprise. At very minimum, it potentially gives the F.A.s a chance to warn the flight crew.

            And your logic is strange anyway — laws against murder haven’t stopped murders, so should we do away with the laws?

      2. Total –

        Are you arguing that TSA confiscated over 3000 firearms in carry on luggage last year, many of which were loaded, and some even had a round in the chamber ready to go off, is theater?

        The fact is, the system is multi-layered. Without the so-called theater those 3000 firearms would have ended up on commercial flights. Regardless of who is carrying the weapon I sincerely doubt anyone is OK with that.

        While I agree that armored cockpit doors are indeed important – they are the last line of defense. Better those firearms don’t get on board to begin with. An armed individual with ill intent can weak havoc in the passenger cabin without even attempting to breach the cockpit.

  5. Seems to me the problem was all the people on your flight with overactive bladders. Jokes aside, I’ve never been on a flight where there was more than a 2 person queue for the lavatories, including some very long flights on A319/737-700 aircraft. Is this a “going to Cancun” problem where people may have prepartied a bit too much??

    1. A – I highly doubt it was an issue of people partying too much on an 840a flight TO Cancun. (The return, maybe.) Sounds like you’re just far too lucky. With only 2 lavs onboard a 4 hour flight, lav lines are bound to happen.

    2. No more than a two person line for the lavs?? You gotta be kidding me. I want to be on your flights.

      There are numerous instances where the crew cannot provide service or has to significantly delay a service due to numerous people on line for the two aft lavs.

  6. So they think a bunch of strangers are going to get together mid flight and stand near the toilets to plan how to take over the aircraft???????

    I would think a planned group would have decided how to do that long before they go on the aircraft.

    I can understand long lines and other passengers sitting in the area near toilets wouldn’t like a long line of smelly butts in their face. But we all know lines create problems for F/As moving about the cabin so they don’t want lines to make it harder for them.

    1. “So they think a bunch of strangers are going to get together mid flight and stand near the toilets to plan how to take over the aircraft???????”

      No, they think that part of the plan to take over the plane will be to gather all the attackers at the front so that they’ll be ready to go. Could everyone please remember 9/11 for just a split second?

      1. But then we’re still making September 10 policies to prevent September 11. The fact is that no such effort could be successful now due to the reinforced cockpits, and indeed the learning curve for passengers on September 11 itself was so fast that the last terrorist group that day failed in their mission when the passengers brought down the plane in Pennsylvania. That method of taking over a plane will never be successful again. A missile launched from the ground or a plant in the pilot’s seat are the way it would be done now, neither of which has anything to do with going to the bathroom.

        1. “The fact is that no such effort could be successful now due to the reinforced cockpits, and indeed the learning curve for passengers on September 11 itself was so fast that the last terrorist group that day failed in their mission when the passengers brought down the plane in Pennsylvania”

          So a group smuggles onboard something that can cut through the armored door of the cockpit, gathers as a crowd at the front, and while the lead person is cutting through the door, the rest prevent the passengers from intervening?

          And if you’re insistent that you need to gather as a crowd at the front because the only consequence of that would be the crash of the entire plane, killing perhaps several hundred people (ala Flight 93), then I think I’d rather have the rule.

  7. Here in SE Asia where I, an expat New Yorker, now live and where every month fly in both Boeing 737s and Airbus 320s, the lav configuration is always one in front and two in the back and in literally hundreds of flights in the past decade, no flight attendant has ever made lining up for toilets an issue. They are, in fact, almost always quite understanding and sympathetic even though both aircraft are 180-passenger, single aisle jets and lining up or waiting for a toilet often results in infringing on galley space.

  8. All this “discussion” because of a rogue SWA flight attendant, who had no idea what she was talking about.
    This is why I don’t fly Southwest. Everything about them screams childish, they talk to people like they need to be obedient children. I don’t take flights to be treated like I’m in grade school; I’m an adult and I’ve never flown any airline where flight attendants tell passengers not to line up for a bathroom. They should rename themselves Disney Airlines.

  9. 1. It really is not ‘stupid’ to prohibit lines from being formed at front of aircraft, knowing there have been multiple attempts (including a couple of successful ones on that date some may have forgotten 9/11) to break into the flight deck.

    2. Some of SWA aircraft have two restrooms in rear of aircraft and one at front. You will see more of these in future as SWA adds to its fleet and retires the older aircraft.

    1. 9/11 is not really relevant here, since up until 9/11 it was actually possible to open the flight deck door, or break into it. It is no longer possible, no matter how many people “congregate.”

      1. Exactly, armored cockpit doors make breaking into the flight deck almost impossible. Yes, the cockpit door opens during flight occasionally for pilots to use the bathroom, but the pilots and FAs seem to have a very well coordinated scheme to block access to the front when pilots are using the lavatory.

        1. Total – Yes I do. I think Germanwings 9525 showed just how hard it is to get into the cockpit. Even a desperate plane full of people knowing if they didn’t get in there, they’d all die couldn’t get in there.

          Suzann – Yes, the 737-800s have more lavs but they also have more people. It’s a better ratio, but it’s not like the 737-700s are disappearing anytime soon.

          1. “Total – Yes I do. I think Germanwings 9525 showed just how hard it is to get into the cockpit. Even a desperate plane full of people knowing if they didn’t get in there, they’d all die couldn’t get in there”

            A situation the Germanwings passengers weren’t prepared for. You want to bet on the TSA making sure that people don’t get on planes with something a bit more effective at opening doors? The TSA that misses 95% of the test weapons inspectors try to smuggle through? That’s a remarkable level of confidence you have in the TSA.

            Does banning crowds near the cockpit door guarantee nothing’s going to happen? Absolutely not. Is it a reasonable extra layer of protection? Sure.

            1. Total – I’m fine betting on that. There is a tradeoff in life no matter what you do. And some risks are worth it, others aren’t. It seems to have been proven pretty well that the cockpit door is well reinforced. Do I think it’s smart to let a group of people hang out by the door? No. But do I think people should be able to line up for the front lav? Heck yes.

            2. “Do I think it’s smart to let a group of people hang out by the door? No. But do I think people should be able to line up for the front lav? ”

              And the difference between the two is?

            3. Total – I see this as general paranoia. The flight attendants always have the ability to tell people to sit down in the name of safety as needed. If there’s a secretive group of people huddling at the front blocking access and acting in a questionable manner, then the flight attendant can make the decision to tell them to go. But it’s pretty clear when people are just lining up for the bathroom.

  10. I’ve once been next on line for the rear lav, carrying my 1 year old son, and was asked to return to my seat until the lav was free. I tried to explain to the flight attendant that my seat was 20 rows forward and it would be impossible to wait until the rear lav was available before getting up, and actually expect to make it 20 rows to the rear before someone else snagged the lav. She said “it’s the law, sir”

    Unfortunately you cannot argue beyond that point, as reasonable disagreements aboard airplanes quickly turn into diversions and big problems.

    1. “Would you like to let me wait for the lav for another minute, or would you prefer to clean up a diaper blowout?”

    2. Today I was on a United ATL ?? DEN flight. The “keep your seatbelt fastened light” was on for a good part of the flight. While that light was out, I got in line for the rear lav. I was told by a FA to go back, sit down and wait for the lav to open. #1 – I had to strain my neck to look around at the lav, #2 – from my seat, I really couldn’t see the restroom light well, # 3 – I chuckle inside when the FA says, “Let us know if there is anything we can do to make your flight more comfortable”, #4 I asked abt that rule when I walked out, 2 of the crew chimed in that it for “for my safety b/c of possible turbulence.” In addition to air sickness bags, they should provide Travel Johns at the seats. More and more ways to inconvenience passengers…

  11. This post prompted a memory of another lavatory line controversy when I was a Flight Attendant for a charter carrier flying the pilgrims from Nigeria to Jeddah for the Hajj. The passengers would line up for the lavs (where the toilet seats had been removed since most used it to squat over not understanding the Western commode.) However every time a Man came to the line he assumed his cultural “superior” right to step in front of any woman waiting to use the lav. Thus no women were able to ever get to the bathroom as they were constantly preempted. Solution was two make separate lavs assigned to each gender and naturally men would not deem to use the lav assigned to females. Case solved.

  12. Just wondering how that would apply to the “lounge” on an A-380…where congregating seems to be actively encouraged! Interpretation, indeed!

      1. Just made me think about it after 22 hours on Virgin Atlantic last week… coming back from Capetown today on QATAR – CPT/DOH/LAX on their 777s – I can’t remember if they have a lounge or not, but their A380s definitely do, but they don’t fly any of them to the US. Emirates does, of course.

  13. Thank You for clearing this up.   Several long lines emerged just Saturday coming to back from Costa Rica.    Flight attendants handled it without incident, no forced sitting.

    Sent from Yahoo Mail on Android

  14. Yeah, but on Avatar/Family airlines, you will have entertainment from the mimes as you congregate in the back waiting for the lav.

  15. “Presumably this rule is meant to keep gangs from forming and pushing their way into the cockpit, intending to do harm. That’s stupid,”

    Yeah, because that’s never happened before.

  16. The wording about the “tickeded” cabin has been around for a long time. A couple years ago when I was flying UA and got an op-up I asked the FA if I had to go back to my ticketed cabin, but that just caused more confusion..

  17. Last year when I was returning from FRA through Lufthansa, the cabin attendant announced “once the plane enters the US airspace you should always be seated in your seats do not stand or move around the flight frequently”.

  18. Never thought that this could be a problem on a flight. I flew a lot of times in the last years but fortunately this never happend to me. I often saw a few people waiting in line for the bathroom and it was never a problem.

  19. Just encountered this yesterday on a SWA flight to chicago from cancun. Never had an issue before on international flights returning to the US.

  20. On April 24th on an alaska flight from Tuscon to Portland for the first time ever on a domestic fight not allowed to stand to wait for bathroom. Is there a new law to this effect or is there old law that was just not enforced before in my experience? Or was the flight attendant just batty?

      1. Thanks, I have understood that there has been some directive to this effect for a long period of time. However, I have never before seen it interoperated to mean you can’t wait in line at the bathroom. I am hoping that this incident with Alaska is an anomaly. I was concerned that a new directive might have been issued that went over and beyond the congregating directive.

  21. Just experienced this on my Southwest flight from CUN-LAX, and was a bit surprised. The FA was pretty firm about it, insisting it was “international law”. Assuming it is true, what would the security rationale be for the rear lav? (Not the crowd/service issue.)

    1. I emailed Southwest and they gave me a generic answer that didn’t answer the question. I guess I didn’t expect a CSR to have a real answer, but my question was more specific about other airlines and lining up in the aisle vs congregating in the galley. “Please allow me to explain, in accordance with security regulations for international flights returning to the United States, Customers may not congregate in any area of the aircraft, particularly around the lavatories” In other words, all other airlines are breaking the law by allowing people to queue up for the lav (not at the front by the cockpit).

  22. There are all these wonderful topics about the TSA directive about lavatory usage on international flights towards (“returning to”) the US.
    However, the actual directive is NOWHERE to be found. Not even on the TSA website. Is this an urban legend spiraled out of control?

  23. So if the no waiting for the bathroom line was in place pre 9/11 they would’ve obeyed the rule and stayed in their seats?

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