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What really happens when you flush a plane loo?

22 JANUARY 2018 •

Unless you’ve flown first class, or in a private jet, aircraft loos are windowless, cramped affairs that usually reek of cheap sanitizer. But they have come a long way – and rarely get the recognition they deserve.

The first flight (made by Orville Wright, although some conspiracy theorists think otherwise – more on that here), explains Aviation Global News, lasted just 12 seconds – “hardly long enough to get worked up from a bladder perspective, although one may surmise that a number two might have been on his mind”. 

But before long, planes were flying for much longer. “It is obvious that someone, somewhere, was the first person to relieve themselves in an aircraft. Who was this urinary pioneer? – history does not record,” laments the website.

Some interesting facts have been recorded, however. Second World War pilots, for example, couldn’t stand the “slop bucket” loos – or “Elsans” – found on board Lancaster bombers. They often overflowed in turbulent conditions, or were tricky to use.

One unidentified airman described his hatred for the contraptions: “While we were flying in rough air, this devil’s convenience often shared its contents with the floor of the aircraft, the walls, the ceiling, and sometimes a bit remained in the container itself.

The loos on Second World War planes weren't great

“It doesn't take much imagination to picture what it was like trying to combat fear and airsickness while struggling to remove enough gear in cramped quarters and at the same time trying to use the bloody Elsan… This loathsome creation invariably overflowed on long trips and in turbulence was always prone to bathe the nether regions of the user. It was one of the true reminders to me that war is hell.”

Airmen sometimes preferred to urinate or defecate into containers, before simply hurling their business out of a window. Some reputedly jettisoned full Elsan toilets on German targets along with their bombs – an early example of biological warfare.

During the Second World War, airmen sometimes preferred to urinate into containers, before simply hurling their business out of a window

James Kemper’s modern vacuum toilet wasn’t patented until the Seventies, with the first one installed by Boeing in 1982. Before that, plane loos were unwieldy boxes that utilised large quantities of blue liquid known as “Skykem” and were prone to leaking. So next time you’re queuing to use the facilities at 35,000 feet, count yourself lucky.

Kemper’s nifty device uses a little liquid, but relies on non-stick coating and vacuum suction to wash away the nastiness. The video below shows just how efficiently the vacuum works. 

Plane loos haven't changed much in the last 35 years 

Since then, there have not really been any dramatic advances in aircraft toilet technology – if it ain't broke, don't fix it. The only noteworthy item is that the toilets on Boeing's 787 Dreamliners have automatically closing lids. Oh, and some toilets are getting smaller to really cram in those paying customers.

So what does happen to all that waste? Is it jettisoned into the sky? To all those fliers who make a point of holding it in until the plane reaches European soil, prepare to be sorely disappointed.

“There is no way to jettison the contents of the lavatories during a flight,” explains Patrick Smith, a pilot and author of Cockpit Confidential, a book about air travel. “At the end of a flight, the blue fluid, along with your contributions to it, are vacuumed into a tank on the back of a truck. (The truck driver’s job is even lousier than the co-pilot’s, but it pays better.)

Waste is collected – and then offloaded. Simple and dull.

“The driver then wheels around to the back of the airport and furtively offloads the waste in a ditch behind a parking lot... Just kidding. In truth I don’t know what he does with it. Time to start a new urban legend.”

There is one caveat, however. It is impossible to empty passengers' waste from an aircraft intentionally, but not by mistake.

“A man in California once won a lawsuit after pieces of blue ice fell from a plane and came crashing through the skylight of his sailboat,” added Captain Smith. “A leak, extending from a toilet’s exterior nozzle fitting, caused runoff to freeze, build, and then drop like a neon ice bomb. If you think that’s bad, a 727 once suffered an engine separation after ingesting a frozen chunk of its own leaked toilet waste, inspiring the line ‘when the s*** hits the turbofan.’”




Good Travel Medical Insurance and Why You Need It: A Personal Story

While vacationing, medical evacuation is the furthest thing from most of our minds, but if you don’t take simple steps to mitigate the risk,  you could be in for a shock.  Here is the true case of my son, who at the age of four months,  required life saving medical evacuation from Ho Chi Minh City, VN to Bangkok, Thailand. 

It was the year 2007, and our family was living in HCMC (Ho Chi Minh City) at the time, and I was working with International SOS, the world’s largest medical and travel security assistance company. Our nanny had accidentally given our son, a purple root vegetable that when ingested can be toxic, because it depletes the supply of oxygen to red blood cells, causing one to choke from within and the afflicted to turn blue.

I was downstairs in my house when my wife frantically screamed that our son had turned blue and was gasping for air. We rushed out the door, frantically looking for a taxi and managed to catch one to the International SOS clinic, but the doctor on duty wasn’t able to diagnose the problem. His hunch that this was an allergic reaction to a vegetable paid off, and he promptly called one of his Vietnamese colleagues at Children’s Hospital #1, the largest teaching hospital in HCMC. Once we arrived, the doctors swiftly diagnosed the problem and gave our son the antidote, which thankfully worked quickly. Next we were told that there was no bed for our son,  and we could all wait outside in the 90+ degree heat. My employer, International SOS promptly and thankfully, arranged for a medical evacuation to Bangkok and Bumrungrad Hospital, a center of excellence in the region.

My wife, son, and I boarded a charter medevac flight about seven hours later, with International SOS managing the bed-to-bed transfer and medical supervision. We stayed in Bangkok for the next four days until International SOS and Bumrungrad were comfortable with releasing our son from the hospital. Having great medical insurance in place averted a situation that could have quickly gone bad to worse from both a medical and financial standpoint, it were not for my medical insurance policy, which included payment for medical evacuation service. In fact medical evacuation costs can greatly exceed $50,000, so it's best to travel smart and be protected.

Written by James Pruss

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