This is the Travel Take, where Matador’s writers and editors make the case for their favorite travel hacks, tips, and personal tics.
Science says that the germiest surface in an airplane is the tray table, and flight attendants warn that the plane’s windows are filthy, too. But this time, science and cabin crews have it all wrong. No matter the amount of swabbing and analyzing that is carried on, I am convinced that the grossest parts of an airplane are the bathroom trash cans.
I don’t think many of us think twice before eating the obligatory dry, unflavorful airplane food on that flimsy plastic rectangle, but I would bet a good chunk of cash that every single person who has ever used an airplane bathroom trash can in economy has done so with absolute revulsion.
The way I use airplane bathroom trash cans is probably the same most passengers do. I wash my hands, grab a rough brown paper towel to dry them, use that same paper towel to flush the toilet and open the latch on the bathroom door, and then, with the tip of my fingers scarcely protected by the now nearly disintegrated towel, I push gingerly on the dreaded flap of the airplane bathroom trash can, and attempt to drop my trash in as quickly as possible. Of course, because I have no desire to touch this abominable piece of equipment any longer than necessary with my clean hands, I never manage to push the whole thing down the hatch properly, giving the bathroom the air of griminess I loathe so much. I am eaten by guilt every time I pee on a plane.
But I am very ready to shift the responsibility of the grubbiness on to the people who design airplane bathroom trash cans. Who thought that a manually operated flap was the way to go? Having to touch the lid of the trash can is akin to just grabbing a handful of the waste inside of it: every item put into the trash can has touched that lid. That can be a dirty diaper, a tissue full of snot, a used tampon, or anything else that fits in there and needs getting rid of. And having to touch the flap of the trash can after having washed your hands makes even less sense.
The solutions are obvious
Making sure that airplane bathrooms have as few touch surfaces as possible should be the top priority for designers and airlines. Airplane toilet lids should open and close on their own at every use, the toilets should flush automatically, the tap and the soap dispenser should be motion-activated, and airplane bathroom trash cans should not require that passengers put their hands halfway down the hatch.
One solution that seems painfully obvious, yet is only found in a few airplane bathrooms, is a trash can activated by a foot pedal. I’ve personally never seen one in an airplane, but Youtube flight reviewer Tiezheng Bu assures me by email that “a few airlines feature the foot pedal on their aircraft,” including Dreamliners and A330s on Turkish Airlines, Saudia, and Etihad.
These should be ubiquitous. People have been able to buy foot pedal trash cans for their homes for decades, so why is it that airplane bathrooms are so behind? If motion sensors are too expensive or complicated, foot pedals could be used for a range of touch-free purposes, such as opening the toilet lid, flushing, activating the tap, etc.
One airline that’s trying hard to provide its passengers with a cleaner airplane bathroom experience is ANA (All Nippon Airways). In 2021, the Japanese airline fitted 21 of its planes with hand-free bathroom doors. The system allows passengers to use their elbows to open the door from both outside and inside, as well as lock and unlock it.
Just like ANA’s hand-free lavatory door, there are simple, mechanical solutions out there to make airplane bathrooms less yucky and protect the passengers from the transmission of viruses, bacterias, or other microbes. In the meantime, keep your family-size bottle of sanitizer handy.