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Diaper duties on airplanes

A few weeks back, I was taken to task by some readers for urging air travelers not to change their babies’ diapers on airplane seat cushions or tray tables. I’d seen it done and it struck me as stinky and unsanitary. Some parents shot back: “Got a better idea, Ms. Obviously-You-Have-No-Children?”
Duane Hoffmann /

A few weeks back, I was taken to task by some readers for urging air travelers not to change their babies’ diapers on airplane seat cushions or tray tables.

I’d seen it done and it struck me as stinky and unsanitary. Some parents shot back: “Got a better idea, Ms. Obviously-You-Have-No-Children?”

Others wrote to share their in-flight diaper changing adventures and offer strategies for accomplishing this task using laps, lavatories, floors and, yes, even the seat cushions.

Laps and seats
Nicole in Eagle River, Alaska, wrote: “When ... I need to change our children, I have always placed them on my lap and put a blanket on top of them while changing. I'm quick. No one sees or smells anything. The only problem I have is the flight attendants not being able to put diapers in their trash even if it is in a plastic bag that I carry. That’s what stinks!”

Ann in Covina, Calif., handled in-flight diaper changes this way: “My husband and I ... made a ‘table’ by turning knee-to-knee. He had the head. I had the stinky end and we lay the changing mat under the baby. We worked as fast as possible and placed the dirty diaper in double zip lock bags as well as the wipes. With that configuration our bodies blocked the view and with two at work we were nice and fast.”

On the floor
Liz in San Diego, Calif., reported this: “On a recent five-hour flight from Baltimore to San Diego, I saw several parents changing their child's diaper in the emergency exit area in the back of the plane, just in front of the lavatory. Most had a mat to put on the floor, but it seemed ... like a pretty good place to change a diaper. There was plenty of room for the parent to move around, it was out of the way of any other passengers, and it wasn't on the seat.”

Babies in bathrooms
When Beth from Gainesville, Va., had to change her nine-month-old daughter on a trip to London she says, “[W]e ended up having to lay her on the counter in the bathroom with one of us changing her and the other supporting her. Gross ... too many germs for me. Next time [we use] the seat!”

But Jessica from Salt Lake City, Utah, offered this lav-strategy: “If you put the seat lid down, it makes just enough space to change a young baby and is still just enough space for a toddler to lay on with his legs up. Not the most pleasant, or ergonomically efficient, but I can't imagine changing a diaper on an airplane seat.”

And Julia from Bellingham, Wash., sent these instructions: “The way to change a diaper in flight is to go to the toilet, use the toilet as a seat for yourself, and lay the baby across your knee. Then you can change the diaper easily and without baby ever touching the floor or the seat. I changed all five of my babies this way, even at home, and my daughter and I changed my grandson this way recently during a long flight to London. It is so easy. I just do not know why people make simple things difficult.”

Changing tables in the bathrooms?
The ideal diaper-changing option for many parents, and other passengers, is on a special table in a bathroom. These days, most airports have diaper-changing stations in the women’s and in many men’s bathrooms, as well as in the increasingly popular “family bathrooms.” Fold-down changing tables are also showing up in many airplane lavatories as well.

Jennifer Clayton of Cecilton, Md., wrote: “... almost all of the planes I've flown on recently have pull-down baby changing tables above the toilet in the lavatory. It's a tight fit in a small bathroom ... but it's definitely better than having to change the baby on a seat or the floor. I'm not even sure if most parents are aware of them. I found out about them after asking a member of the flight crew on my daughter's first cross-country flight.”

The good news is that most of the larger, newer airplanes used for long-distance flights do indeed have infant-changing tables in one or more lavatories. But finding one on your next flight can be hit or miss, especially if you’re flying on a regional airline or on an airline that’s hasn’t updated its fleet.

For example, JetBlue has infant-changing tables in all aircraft lavatories. Southwest Airlines has changing tables on some of its aircraft, Northwest Airlines has them on all but 10 percent of its fleet and, according to Tim Wagner at American Airlines, there’s at least one lavatory with a changing table on all but 13 of the airline’s fleet of 673 airplanes. In an e-mail message Wagner explained: “All of our ‘widebody’ aircraft have changing tables in the lavatories. [These are] the aircraft with two aisles that are most likely to be used on long flights — for us those are 767, 777 and Airbus 300 aircraft. Almost all of our narrow body aircraft have changing tables somewhere onboard. All MD-80 aircraft have a changing table somewhere on the aircraft.”

Regional airlines that fly shorter routes and use smaller aircraft are less likely to have changing tables. In fact, Dave Lotterer of RAA, the Regional Airline Association, says he doesn’t know of any regional airplanes (jets or turboprops) that are equipped with diaper-changing tables in the bathroom. But Jen Boyer at Horizon Air sent an e-mail saying that the airline’s CRJ-700 jets do have them. “My understanding is you can order the CRJ-700, as well as many other aircraft around the industry, with changing tables in the bathrooms. It's an option and that's why you don't see solid consistency from one airline to another or one type of aircraft to another. Keep in mind that everything an airline orders to be put into an aircraft weighs something and that comes at a cost.”

So, to return to my proposed Air Passenger’s Code of Cordiality: should you change a baby’s diaper on the seat cushion or tray table? If there’s a changing table in the lavatory, absolutely not. It’s stinky and, as Gary from Reno, Nev., confirms, truly unsanitary: “I'm an airline employee and ... have actually seen a baby's diaper changed on a tray table. The parents actually stretched him out over all three tray tables to accomplish the task. Air travelers should be aware that tray tables are cleaned when the plane RONs (Remains Over Night) and not usually between flights. I recommend carrying some sort of anti-bacterial wipes to use on the tray table.”

Good idea. Here's another addition to the Code of Cordiality: “Be sure to disinfect your seat area.”