When nature calls at 30,000 feet, is $1.40 a wee price to pay? Or could it force passengers without correct change into a whole new kind of holding pattern?
The head of budget European airline Ryanair unleashed a flood of indignation and potty humor Friday when he suggested that future passengers might be obliged to insert a British pound coin for access to the lavatory to get some in-flight relief.
Airline chief Michael O'Leary suggested that installing pay toilets would lower ticket costs and make flying, somehow, easier for all.
Not even his own aides seemed to be sure if he was serious or pursuing his penchant for making brazen declarations to get free publicity for Ryanair.
"One thing we have looked at in the past, and are looking at again, is the possibility of maybe putting a coin slot on the toilet door, so that people might have to actually spend a pound to 'spend a penny' in future," O'Leary said, using a British euphemism for going to the bathroom.
When asked during an interview on BBC Television what would happen if a customer really had to go but didn't have correct change, O'Leary dismissed the scenario as implausible.
"I don't think there's anybody in history (who has) gone on board a Ryanair aircraft with less than a pound," he said.
He cited the British currency even though Ireland and most of Europe uses euros.
O'Leary spokesman Stephen McNamara said his boss often spoke tongue in cheek — but he then defended the idea of in-flight pay toilets as part of a logical trend.
"Michael makes a lot of this stuff up as he goes along and, while this has been discussed internally, there are no immediate plans to introduce it," McNamara said, adding, "Passengers using train and bus stations are already accustomed to paying to use the toilet, so why not on airplanes? Not everyone uses the toilet on board one of our flights, but those that do could help to reduce airfares for all passengers."
What won't the airline do?
Analysts agreed that the man who pioneered charging passengers to check bags, to use a check-in desk and even to use a credit or debit card to make an online booking just might be serious about mile-high toilet extortion.
Howard Wheeldon, senior strategist at BGC Partners in London, said there might be some truth to O'Leary's statement.
"This begs a simple question retort of: Is there absolutely nothing that this airline won't do? Not really, so if you are thinking about flying cattle-class Ryanair in future, beware," he said.
David Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, which represents the major U.S. airlines, said he wasn't aware that any were considering a toilet fee.
Not surprisingly, passengers reacted with indignation and outrage at the prospect.
Vitaly Zananetskin, who was boarding a Ryanair flight to London at Riga International Airport in Latvia, called it "a bad idea."
"I would just try to go to the restroom before going on board and then try not to drink too much during the flight," he said. "A three-hour flight without a toilet is tolerable. Of course, if it gets so bad that your eyes are watering, then you can pay the money."
On the recession-hit streets of Dublin, Ryanair passengers waiting for an airport shuttle bus seemed resigned to the idea of paying for an O'Leary-provided potty.
A wee for a pound — what a deal
"Your only choice with Ryanair, really, is not to fly Ryanair. Your dignity goes out the window. If you have a complaint, they're not programmed to care," said Samantha Jones, a 30-year-old Welsh woman.
She discounted the practicality of a restroom rebellion.
"If you are given a choice between wetting your knickers or not wetting your knickers, you will pay whatever fee they make you pay, and Mr. O'Leary knows this well," she said. "Frankly, I'm surprised he's talking about letting us have a wee for a pound, not more!"
Rochelle Turner, head of research at British consumer rights magazine Which? Holiday, said Ryanair had a well-documented practice of "putting profit before the comfort of its customers" — but this one could backfire.
"Charging people to go to the toilet might result in fewer people buying overpriced drinks on board. That would serve Ryanair right," she said.
Noah Cole of Portland, Ore., who has flown on Ryanair, called it "unconscionable" to charge for a bathroom, and he even predicted money-changing problems. In other words, if you only have dollars, can you still euro-nate?
"What if you don't have the requisite currency? Do you beg your seatmate for a euro so you can go to the bathroom?" Cole said in Dallas. "That's the nightmare scenario."
“We’re all about finding ways of raising discretionary revenue so we can keep lowering the cost of air travel,” he said.