When You Can Use the Lavatory Even When a Flight Attendant Says No (and How That Could Keep You Out of Jail)

A video went viral this week of passengers being removed from a Delta flight from Minneapolis to Los Angeles. The flight returned to Minneapolis where it was met by police. Passengers cheers as a man and woman were led off the aircraft.

Apparently the woman needed to use the lavatory shortly after takeoff. She got up, but a flight attendant spoke up — we don’t know exactly what was said. The woman and her travel companion escalated things to the point where the pilot decided to set the aircraft back down at its point of origin.

A denial of a bathroom request shortly after takeoff from MSP appears to have precipitated what turned into a raucous affair aboard a Delta Air Lines flight that resulted in two passengers being arrested and the pilot turning the plane around in mid-air Wednesday, according to officials and a passenger aboard.

Here’s the thing, the incident may have been a misunderstanding and savvier passengers would have known that everyone could get what they wanted in the situation. You see, it’s usually ok to use the lavatory while the seat belt sign is on.

When a plane is on an active taxiway you need to stay in your seat, otherwise the captain usually won’t move the aicraft. But if you’re in the air, it’s another story.

To a 98% approximation, flight attendants don’t actually care if you use the lavatory while the seat belt sign is on. They have to tell you that the seat belt sign is on. They cannot tell you it is ok for you to use the lavatory.

I watch passengers, over and over, asking permission. The flight attendant cannot give you permission. Because what if something bad happened? That’s on them and the airline. But if they advise you that the seat belt sign is on and you go anyway it’s pretty much on you.

Now, of course, you must follow flight attendant instructions. So if they actually do tell you to sit down, you’d best do it. But most of the time passengers think a flight attendant is telling them to sit down when they’re just saying the seat belt sign is on. Occasionally I see flight attendants saying ‘the seat belt sign is on’ while making faces and motioning passengers into the lav.

If you can wait until the seat belt sign is off, that’s better, right? But if you can’t, and sometimes you just have to go, go. Try to avoid doing so right after takeoff, right before landing (as in the first and last 5 minutes!). And once you’re in the lavatory, do your very best to avoid this happening.

And don’t assume a flight attendant is saying ‘no’ and then jumping to offense, arguing, or threatening. That never ends well. Instead just say, “yes, I understand, and unless you specifically tell me that I cannot use the lavatory I am going to go because it’s an emergency.” Then go, unless you hear instructions to the contrary.

A totally different question of course is whether it’s ok for coach passengers to use the first class lavatory. And please always wear shoes into the lavatory.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Was just on a UA flight from KOA-LAX on Thursday and the flight attendant would yell at passengers to “sit down” and “you cannot use the bathroom right now”. This was mid flight after some minor turbulence caused the pilot to turn on the seat belt sign. I think it is far more than 2% of the time when flight attendants tell you to sit down. But this mostly happens in economy class so….

  2. After seeing that a bunch of people from coach seemed to be using the first class test room I figured I would jump into the line. A flight attendant told me that I wasn’t allowed to be up there. I told her that I saw a bunch of people from coach use the bathroom. She told me that I had to use the bathroom at the back of the plane. I asked her why do I have to use the bathroom in the back of the plane if all those other people were using this one and some even waited in the galley? She proceeded to tell me that coach passengers need to use the one in the back. So I asked her why she was trying to tell me to use the one in the back if I was seated in first class but clearly saw people from coach walk up and use this rest room? She assumed that I wasn’t a first class passenger based on my dressed down appearance and long hair. I told her I thought she was prejudiced

  3. I learned this years ago when FA told me seat belt sign was on and I honestly told her I couldn’t wait. Two are three savvy travelers around me explained at once that she had to warn me but it was OK to go anyway. I apologized to her and got up to go. She looked away.

    I can’t think of any time when polite understanding doesn’t go a long way with FA’s who seem to appreciate when you appreciate what they do. Sometimes to get more time to stretch my legs I’ll chat them up in the back and can get a lot of inside information on their job, present mergers, the plane, etc.

    Sometimes when service is grudging it’s so uncomfortable that one incident like that is one I remember most: I was flying to Europe while fighting off a cold. I needed massive infusions of OJ and kept asking for 2 cups at a time, refills, etc. On the last service an FA who had been rolling her eyes at this thrust the full OJ bottle at me and said “Will this make you happy?” I took it and thanked her profusely to which she scowled. I told my seatmate I was going to take it as a courtesy but he agreed she was irritated. I felt bad about it tho I was glad to get the OJ and beat the cold so it didn’t ruin my trip.

  4. If the FA’s are buckled in, themselves, then it’s best you also stay buckled. If they’re up and about, probably ok for you to be up.

    Follow those rules of thumb and don’t ask them, and you’ll likely stay in their good graces.

  5. @Billy D – she wasn’t prejudiced, she was RIGHT, you were a coach passenger, maybe she recognized you from in back or she knew who was in first and that you weren’t one of those passengers? Regardless it is highly advisable to follow flight crew instructions, not to question whether those instructions are being given equally to all passengers. If you have a customer service issue, follow up with the airline after the flight. It’s how you avoid being sent to Guantanamo.

  6. Flight crew (bollocks. Airborne waitresses) need to learn the difference between required instructions and being power crazed bitches.

  7. Just smile and take videos posted to YouTube. This is something the ugliest of them can never live down. The ones with millions of views make them recognizable everywhere and not in a good way, either.

    Democracy sometimes works, and you don’t even have to get your hands dirty.

  8. It is called Depends. Mother wears them every time. She once told a male FA that you don’t want to change this here, do you?

  9. From a Flight attendant myself, here’s what I say.

    We are first and foremost hired for passengers safety. I know you may be tired of hearing that but it is required by law.
    Then service comes second. I think people can forget and be ignorant to the risks they take while in a tin can flying in the air as what we say – when they think their knowledge is better than ours – what we have thoroughly trained for and you don’t want to know what the constant studying and amendments with different laws that we have to know off by heart. Although many other jobs do this aswell if you can relate.

    When the seat belt sign is on:

    During take off and landing is the most likely stage of flight to ditch in water, have engine failure, landing gear failure etc. resulting in to say bluntly, crash and have an emergency evacuation. This can be done safely and of course we are trained for this in different types of scenarios and circumstances.

    If there is people out of their seats at this point and something goes wrong, they could get seriously injured, then also impede an evacuation if worse case scenario excelled, resulting in endangering others chance for survival including their own.

    If the seatbelt sign is on during flight for say.. turbulence:
    Things can go seriously wrong.
    Have you ever heard of clear air? This is when our tech crew (pilots) have no radar on this certain weather pattern where to not get too technical and to put simply, it can force our altitude to go suddenly up or down. People not in their seats securely fastened in the past have had serious head/brain etc. injuries from being jolted to the ceiling of the aircraft and have been hospitalized afterwards. Plus many other unfortunate outcomes.

    We really would not wish this on anyone for them to become a victim of these tradgedies.

    Plus if something does happen: say if we allowed this to happen without trying to prevent it with all our best efforts, we are questioned on our job whether we are fit or not for it. I would like to keep my job thanks without being interrogated as I love it. Its quite a rough process. Believe me.

    Since there is a lot of different flight attendants out there with their own personalities, whether you think they may be on a power trip or not, best have the knowledge and understanding that they have been trained in these situations, and their main priority is not only just for your safety, but of every single passenger on board including our fellow crew.

    I can only speak for myself but everything I do in relation to safety is not a chance to have a power trip. No, not at all. More like: this is the procedure, I would get reprimanded if I don’t follow it. I take pride in doing my job right as I’m sure you guys do too, and most of all, my job is customer based and I have a love for people and helping them. I never want to be responsible or know that I didn’t prevent to my best abilities for someone getting hurt.

    I hope this gives you a glimpse of an insight from our perspective.

  10. I almost always fly Business Class or First Class. I follow your suggestions and have almost never had a problem on US airlines. Foreign carriers is another story. When the seat belt sign is on, many of them actually lock the rest room doors and the “occupied” sign appears for all the lavatories. On one Lufthansa flight when the seat belt sign was on, and the door wasn’t locked, I got up to go to the bathroom when the seat belt sign was on – and got a very loud and stern warning that everyone could hear – to go back to my seat the seat belt sign is on — with such vehemence and authority that I thought I was dealing with the reincarnation of the Gestapo. My plan was to give it another 30 minutes and then ask for a bottle to relieve myself at my seat, explaining that it was either that or the possibility of creating a puddle in my seat. It never came to that. The seat belt sing went off about 10 minutes later.

  11. Just one other thing to think of is not the danger of that passenger, but of the other passengers they are putting in danger by them being x amount weight projectiles if any severe turbulence or if on the ground a sudden stop happens. If you want to unbuckle and move around it’s at your own risk, not mine!

  12. @ Gary Leff- thanks for taking the time to read my comment.(not) As I clearly stated in my comment I was seated in first class. But thanks for the insult in addition to the flight attendant being prejudiced to me. I was right, not her. There is no way ever that while seated in seat 3A that I should have been told to use the toilet in the back. Maybe you should use the toilet in the back…

  13. @Gary Leff-I don’t see how she recognized me from the back if I was never in the back. Do you walk around the back of the plane when you’re seated in first class? She assumed I was from the back based on my appearance. It happens all the time even though I’m an ExPlat with American. Flight attendants are used to people like me being in the back and people who wear neck ties and suits in the front. No matter what I wear or what length my hair is I deserve to be treated just like someone who wears a suit. Especially when I’ve been flying well over 100,000 miles on that airline year after year.

  14. @David-Thanks for reading and comprehending my comment and speaking up for me to the thought leader

  15. @Billy D – If I misunderstood you I apologize, you write that you ‘clearly’ stated you were in first class but here’s your first two sentences.

    “After seeing that a bunch of people from coach seemed to be using the first class test room I figured I would jump into the line. A flight attendant told me that I wasn’t allowed to be up there. I told her that I saw a bunch of people from coach use the bathroom. ”

    It wasn’t abundantly clear to me you were in first class, and again I apologize for misreading you.

  16. Thanks for the weird apology. Those first 2 sentences say no where that I was in the back. You apparently assumed. I don’t write professionally and I was trying my best to preface and give background to what I saw before I stated where I was seated. It was obviously not stated in the first 2 sentences where I was seated. Was not aware of a rule that I need to order my comment in any certain way. I think I stated my cabin location in the 7th sentence. Either way you made it past the 7th sentence because you read the last sentence and even the last word of that sentence stating that the flight attendant was being prejudice. She was, flight attendants are human too

  17. Of course, most people are going to believe they have to stay seated. FAs should simply say the seat belt sign is on, so you can you the lav but you do so at your own risk. This whole cloak and dagger routine where a passenger has to guess if they really mean it is just stupid. I almost always stay in the seat until the sign went off. On a SQ flight the plane got stuck on the taxiway because the gate wasn’t ready and I asked a FA if I could use a restroom and they told me to go ahead even though the sign was still on.

  18. @Billy D

    Is English not your first language? I would have to agree with Gary, nowhere in your post do you say that you were “clearly” in first class. You use soft and suggestive wording. The closest you come to “stated your cabin location” was the wording “if I was seating in first class”. In English, the word “if” precedes a hypothetical or a question.

    Things may have been clear to you, but to the rest of us who are relying strictly on your recounting, your word choices are much more vague.

  19. @BillyD, don’t be so easily offended. I can promise you that people that appear “normal” (dressed up, suit, tie, whatever fits the stereotype) have been told to return to Coach because they didn’t have First Class seats. I can also assure you that FA’s have to deal with dozens of people per day and the photographic memory starts to wear thin.
    The FA was trying to protect people like you from people like us, not realizing that you were one of them. On the airplane, the FA is your ally, other passengers may or may not be. Just look at the recent evacuation video’s involving scared passengers.

  20. One thing that is abundantly clear to me by reading the comments is something of which I was already aware and have tested myself: If you look nice, you get better service. That may seem “prejudiced” or unfair to some, but all of us make judgments; that’s human nature. I’ve paid attention to the service I get, and not just in the air, when I am dressed casually and have not taken any extra time with my appearance. Ditto for when my hair is washed and brushed and I have clean and neat clothing on. Time and time again, my experience is moved up on the positive side of the scale when I have made some effort. If you appear professional, you are likely to be treated professionally. In addition, I smile at everyone, and say “please,” and “thank you.” This scenario may not seem right, but that’s the way it is. On another note, I was seated in First Class recently as an upgrade; I noticed passengers from Coach coming up and using the restroom in the front of the plane. I asked the Flight Attendant about it and she said, “You know, we really cannot stop them, even if we tell them to use the one in their own section.”

  21. Why is it that I can go to a baseball game and get hit by a foul ball with no liability to the baseball player, stadium, etc., but when I am flying in the air at 500mph, the airline is responsible for everything about me but air sickness. Not really, but my point is if I feel like using the restroom while in flight, I have already decided that the risk of a head or back injury (even severe) from unpredictable or predictable turbulence outweighs the discomfort and possible health hazards of “holding it”.

    Problems start to arise when other passengers have to get out of their seat to let you out, or if the lav’s are occupied for an extended timeframe (this can happen shortly after food service!) and you are left standing around, so be careful, but don’t blame the pilot or airline if you bump your head. Last I checked, turbulence is not visible.

  22. For those who express that they truly cannot hold it, there is a balance between enforcement and turning a blind eye. This is because the consequences of not allowing someone who says “I cannot hold it” is to have to deal with cleaning up soiled clothing which is much, much worse than allowing risk with warning.

    I have a small bladder and have dealt with this all my life. When I politely say I cannot hold it, I am speaking mechanically about volume. I believe this is why when I was warned by a FA once and replied this way that savvy fliers on all sides of me assured me it was alright to go and that the FA was only required to say that.

    Nevertheless you always have to worry about the authoritarian head trip, almost as a survival skill. The US is about to experience this as never before. Thanks, rednecks!

  23. Just wondering, based on some of the remarks posted here, what if I were in coach on a 747 and tried to use the lavatories “upstairs” what happens on those aircraft, as well as other large aircraft. To say nothing of the same situation on aircraft from other countries. Is there no consistency? As someone who flies “upfront” I have to say that as part of my premium priced ticket, I expect premium service(s). One of which is not having to wait for someone from the economy section preventing me from using the lavatory! Size of the aircraft makes no difference! If you want first class privileges, buy a first class ticket!

  24. “Let them eat cake – no I want the cake, let them eat pretzels! Actually nothing, bring it all up front to me! And keep peasants out of my aisle when I need to waddle my 700 pounds up to the lav which needs to be much bigger!”

    “Your mint, Mr. Creosote.”

  25. That Flight Attendant has gone overboard saying studying for amendments and laws. Oh, please!
    All they teach them is to tell passengers that the seat belt signs are illuminated.
    These air waiters and waitresses have gone way overboard with their false sense of authority.
    First of all, if someone has to go to the bathroom and it is an emergency it is better than causing an embarrassing situation and pee in your pants.
    On a recent delayed flight, we had to circle for a long time. I told the air waitress on United Airlines that I had to go really bad and I apologized and said I understand her job function. She kept yelling at me saying that I would meet the authorities if I do not sit down. Well, the delay ended up being way over one hour.
    I ended up literally pissing in a water bottle at my seat, which is the most embarrassing situation that I have been in my adult age and I would never forget that nasty power hungry air bitch.
    I have had the same type of scenario on Gestapo Lufthansa on a 2 hour delay departure out of JFK as well where the nasty asshole waiter was eating and reading a book and drinking and walking in the galley and we had literally stopped and not moving. I had asked him that I had to go and he kept demanding that I had to sit down and he had locked off the lav. I was nearly about to piss in my pants, I had to call the Purser and beg them to let me use the restroom which after so much discussion they called the Captain, they switched off the seat belt sign and let me finally use the restroom.
    Yes, they have a job to do. Say it once and be done with it. I understand the chances of being in clear air turbulence and how dangerous it is to use the lav on take off and landing. However if it is a real emergency and you rather not piss yourself in the pants, then you have to go. They should teach these waiters/waitresses at United, American, Delta, Lufthansa and Swiss Air not to be air nazi gestabo agents but I do not think these heartless people have an ounce of compassion and humanity in their soul. They just crave drama and that is what they are good at.

  26. That Flight Attendant has gone overboard saying studying for amendments and laws. Oh, please!
    All they teach them is to tell passengers that the seat belt signs are illuminated.
    These air waiters and waitresses have gone way overboard with their false sense of authority.
    First of all, if someone has to go to the bathroom and it is an emergency it is better than causing an embarrassing situation and pee in your pants.
    On a recent delayed flight, we had to circle for a long time. I told the air waitress on United Airlines that I had to go really bad and I apologized and said I understand her job function. She kept yelling at me saying that I would meet the authorities if I do not sit down. Well, the delay ended up being way over one hour.
    I ended up literally pissing in a water bottle at my seat, which is the most embarrassing situation that I have been in my adult age and I would never forget that nasty power hungry air bitch.
    I have had the same type of scenario on Gestapo Lufthansa on a 2 hour delay departure out of JFK as well where the nasty asshole waiter was eating and reading a book and drinking and walking in the galley and we had literally stopped and not moving. I had asked him that I had to go and he kept demanding that I had to sit down and he had locked off the lav. I was nearly about to piss in my pants, I had to call the Purser and beg them to let me use the restroom which after so much discussion they called the Captain, they switched off the seat belt sign and let me finally use the restroom.
    Yes, they have a job to do. Say it once and be done with it. I understand the chances of being in clear air turbulence and how dangerous it is to use the lav on take off and landing. However if it is a real emergency and you rather not piss yourself in the pants, then you have to go. They should teach these waiters/waitresses at United, American, Delta, Lufthansa and Swiss Air not to be air nazi gestabo agents but I do not think these heartless people have an ounce of compassion and humanity in their soul. They just crave drama and that is what they are good at.

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