Sunday, July 15, 2012

Airplane toilets

I’ve returned from Ethiopia finally, and now I can update this more regularly—you know, for all my regular readers.

The flight back from Ethiopia was about 18 hours in the air—18 hours of being rather tightly packed with a hundred or so strangers. Naturally, when you have the window seat—between cups of water, ginger ale, and coffee—you become very concerned with getting to the restroom. This is especially awkward if to the right of you are two men who you’ve managed to avoid eye contact with, much less conversation, for the past 11 hours. It also gets tricky when both members fall asleep at different times, because you’re a considerate/shy person and don’t want to wake them up. (Side note: On a flight to Germany, the guy next to me took sleeping pills. Desperate to go to the bathroom, I ended up standing on the seat and leaping over him. When I got back, he was awake, and asked, “How did you get out?”) When you finally get to the bathroom, wait in line, you are granted entrance to a narrow space that is barely adequate for you, much less people with disabilities, large people, and people with children. We can pretty much all agree that airplane toilets are unpleasantly small, though, so I won’t linger too much on the subject.

But how do airplane toilets work? How Stuff Works has a great explanation. Basically, it’s an active vacuum system. Regular toilets, on the other hand, work only through gravity. According to the article, this has the marked advantage that the waste does not have to simply go down—it can go down, up, sideways, diagonal….you get the idea. It’s an interesting idea that might be an interesting element to consider for systems where down is not necessarily possible because of the ground.

The whoosh of the vacuum seal seems to either cause a strange glee or a fear of being sucked in. Mythbusters claims that you can pull yourself off, but in 2008, a Mr. Murphy flushed while sitting on the toilet, and managed to get himself stuck there until the end of the flight. Garrison Keillor’s article is rather pithily titled, “How an airplane toilet can ruin your life.” Probably a great deal of our anxieties circle around the fact that when we defecate, we are at our most vulnerable, and the whoosh of the toilet—being unfamiliar and strange—seems somewhat threatening. Furthermore, being on an airplane means that we have surrendered our control of the situation; having something unfamiliar in what is traditionally a “safe” space further threatens our sense of well-being.

Another concern on the internet seems to be the idea where airplanes dump their loads (no pun intended). There are a plethora of anecdotes about smelly stuff falling from the sky or “blue ice”—frozen blue toilet liquid agent that will leak from the system, freeze to the side of the airplane, and then occasionally break off. While the dark goop that a Long Island couple reported falling from an airplane seems less likely (actual sanitation leakages would reach the ground as blue ice), blue ice can actually cause real damage to airplanes, as this Slate article points out: in 1992, a bad lavatory seal caused the system to leak blue ice, which broke off and took out an engine. Mythbusters pointed out that dropping hard objects down the john can cause one of the seals to break, causing the system to leak. Airplane toilets can cause a lot of anxiety, in the sense that the waste is not really contained: it is, in fact, above us—literally. We generally prefer that our waste be underground.

What are your thoughts with airplane toilets?

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