The Jetsons might have had it better, but Boeing's new 737 toilets are a huge leap from that grubby early-80s look. The waste bin won't snap back on your hand anymore, so make sure you tidy up.
By Jon Bonné
updated 1/16/2004 6:51:02 PM ET 2004-01-16T23:51:02

Some of Boeing's engineers really have their heads in the toilet.

New 737s, beginning with a jet delivered Friday to China Southern Airlines, will feature redesigned lavatories meant to give passengers a more pleasant time in the loo and to make maintenance workers' jobs a bit easier.

"It offers the passengers a more pleasing flying experience," said Elizabeth Hanski, who as lead engineer on the redesign has faced her share of toilet talk.

It may not seem like a big deal, but the lavatory indicates to passengers whether their plane is new and well outfitted. Clean and comfortable can leave a passenger feeling refreshed; cramped and messy enhances that feeling of being trapped in a flying pigsty.

OK, so the designers can't make that guy sitting in 5B remember to put the seat down and throw out his hand towel. And the lavatories themselves won't be any bigger, as they were designed to retrofit into 737s and 757s currently in service, but a new look certainly helps.

After all, passengers spend most of a flight sitting in their seats, especially on a narrowbody jet like the 737. But during their time in the bathroom, "they have a lot of control and can do things, while the rest of the airplane they don’t interface with," Hanski pointed out.

The updates include a new countertop shape, made from composite materials instead of institutional-looking stainless steel. (Sinks will still be stainless, which is easier to clean.) Larger soap dispensers will move up above the sink, providing more counter space. The waste bins have also been moved off the countertop, and fitting with slower-closing hinges.

"Now all the area next to that sink is available," Hanski said.

You'll never go soapless again
Boeing decided on the changes after scouring its database for 10 years of feedback from airlines. One complaint: Soap dispensers were opaque, making it hard to check the level of soap and extending the time ground crews spent tidying up on turnarounds. So they made the dispensers larger, which also means less frequent refills and less chance you'll be soapless mid-flight. Ditto the size of the waste containers.

Lighting was improved with LEDs, which are also less expensive for airlines to replace.  And plumbing is easier for crews to access.

The changes take on more importance as newer 737 models are used for ever longer flights. The design won't match the comforts of toilets on widebody jets like the 777, which are designed for 12-hour overseas trips, but it should make life more pleasant on those 1,000-mile hops.

Things will get a bit quieter, too. New vents and a muffler on the sink drain will make the interior less noisy and reduce that loud sucking sound. The toilets will still be a bit noisy, in order to accomodate the retrofits. But they are are fitted with slow-closing hinges designed for the 777, so you don't inadvertently close the seat with a bang.

"If the toilet seat shuts, it doesn’t slam and frighten the pilots or the passengers," Hanski said.

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