With all those passengers and all that potential waste onboard, how do airplane bathrooms handle all that waste? What do they do with it while flying?
When you go to the bathroom in an airplane, the flushing system uses a vacuum to evacuate the waste through a system of pipes connecting to a door at the bottom of the toilet. The waste is then redirected to a special holding tank located at the rear of the plane that is emptied after landing.
Going to the bathroom on an airplane is incredibly common, especially on long-haul flights. But with potentially hundreds of passengers and such a small bathroom, what do planes do with all that waste? In this article, we’ll go over everything you want to know (or not know) about how planes handle toilet waste. Though we’ll cover commercial planes in-depth since that is likely why you’re here, we’ll also touch on personal aircraft and even military jets to give you the full picture.
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What Happens With Toilet Waste On Airplanes?
If you’ve ever been on a long-haul flight (over 7 hours), then chances are that you’ve had to go to the bathroom in the air before. Even on much shorter flights, many people still have to go to the bathroom during it. After all, when nature calls, nature calls. And when some airplanes have the potential to carry hundreds of people at once, then you can probably start to imagine how much waste is produced during a flight.
If you have been in an airplane’s bathroom before, you likely know a couple of things about it that you can think of off the top of your head. First of all, the bathrooms are small! But, that’s not what you’re here to learn about, even though I could go on and on about that, too! The other thing you might have noticed is that the toilet is entirely different than the one you’re used to at home. After all, there isn’t even any water sitting in the toilet (since that would potentially make a mess).
So with these entirely different toilet systems used in modern airplanes, it just begs the question: what exactly do airplanes do with all that waste?
Where Does Toilet Waste Go On Airplanes?
The first thing that some people think — since it’s been a long-running rumor since the start of aviation — is that toilet waste is ejected from the airplane when it’s flushed. After all, when you flush the toilet, that’s kind of what it sounds like is happening, isn’t it? It’s loud. But let’s just clear that up right away, because that is not what really happens. After all, can you imagine being on the ground and suddenly getting hit with toilet waste from 30,000 feet in the air?
Of course you can’t, so of course airplanes don’t just eject the waste like that. That would certainly break all sorts of laws and environmental regulations. Instead, when you flush the toilet in an airplane, a door opens up at the bottom of the waterless toilet and the contents are sucked through the plane’s pipe system to a holding tank located at the rear of the plane. The incredibly loud roar that you hear is the vacuum system pulling the waste through the pipes at an incredibly high velocity.
This holding tank is located in the rear of the plane and can only be accessed from the exterior of the plane, so there is no chance that the pilot or any other member of the crew can evacuate the contents during the flight. Instead, once the plane lands at the airport, the tank can be emptied using specialized trucks that were designed for this exact purpose. By using a hose (and another vacuum/pump system), the waste is pulled out of the tank and deposited into the sewage trucks for proper disposal.
Once the trucks have pulled all of the waste out of the plane’s holding tank, the tank is fully cleaned and sanitized with another hose attached to the truck’s cleaning agent. This disinfecting agent is pressurized and used to clean and disinfect the inside of the tank before it is also pumped out and disposed of in an environmentally friendly way.
So when you use the bathroom on an airplane, the toilets use a vacuum system rather than a water/gravity system like the ones in your house utilize. But that then brings up yet another urban legend, that the vacuum system can potentially cause bodily harm or injury.
Are There Really Risks To Using The Bathroom On An Airplane?
As I just mentioned, some people are afraid to use the bathroom on an airplane because there is an old urban legend that the powerful vacuum can potentially kill you. The story goes that an overweight woman had inadvertently created an airtight seal between herself and the toilet, and when the powerful vacuum sucked the waste away, it had so much suction that it pulled her entrails out of her body.
Let’s just clear that up right away, because it’s just not true! This story never actually happened, and it would be impossible to create an airtight seal that could hold that tightly to allow that to happen. Especially since the toilet seat itself is designed to prevent an airtight seal since it’s elevated relative to the rest of the system.
So have no fear about using the bathroom next time you’re flying. Your waste isn’t going to be ejected into the sky, you aren’t going to have your insides sucked out, and nothing is going to happen except that you might be a little cramped in that small bathroom!
How Do Pilots Of Personal Aircraft Use The Bathroom?
So we know that commercial airlines have bathrooms that passengers, crew, and pilots can use, but not all aircrafts have that luxury. What if you’re a brand new pilot learning to fly an aircraft of your very own, but you have to go to the bathroom mid-flight? What happens then, you can’t just get up and walk to the non-existent bathroom in the back of the plane, right?
Unfortunately not. If you’re training to be a pilot or you have a personal airplane of your own, then you don’t have the luxury of being able to use the bathroom while you fly. There isn’t a bathroom on board and you wouldn’t be able to leave the cockpit to get to it even if there was if you’re the only pilot. So the best advice for pilots out there is to use the bathroom before you fly, that’s the easiest way to not have to worry about anything once you’re airborne.
Can Fighter Pilots Go To The Bathroom While Flying?
Similarly to pilots of personal aircraft, fighter pilots don’t have the luxury of having a full-on bathroom to use while they’re flying. Most fighter jets — especially the modern, most advanced ones — are single-seat aircraft piloted by just one pilot. So, like above, they couldn’t get up to leave the cockpit and use the bathroom even if they did have one.
But fighter pilots have an extra option that they can use while flying if they need to go to the bathroom (think #1). With a product called Piddle Packs, fighter pilots are able to relieve themselves while flying if they really need to. These bags are filled with absorbent beads and enable the pilot to go to the bathroom inside (after unzipping their flight suit) if nature calls. Most of the time, fighter pilots will use the bathroom before flight and not have to use these items, however.
About THE AUTHOR
After spending years watching every video I could find about flying, I finally scratched the itch and got my pilots license. Now I fly every chance I get, and share the information I learn, here.Read More About Joe Haygood