If you’ve ever been on a plane before and nature has called, you might be wondering what happened when you pressed the button to flush the toilet.

You’ve probably noticed that airplane toilets look different to toilets on the ground, with the lack of water in the toilet bowl immediately apparent.

This is because airplane bathrooms use a vacuum system to get rid of waste instead of the siphons found on toilets on the ground.

An airplane bathroom works by sucking the waste out of the toilet bowel and into a waste tank found at the back of the plane.

How Airplane Bathrooms Work

To go into more detail:

  • When you flush a plane’s toilet, a “trapdoor” in the base of the toilet opens up.
  • The toilet’s waste goes through this trapdoor and travels through pipes into a tank at the back of the plane.
  • Waste remains in this tank until the plane is on the ground.
  • When the plane is on the ground, trucks attach a hose to the plane to suck the waste into the truck.
  • Once the tank has been emptied, another hose is used to disinfect the tank

How Airplane Bathrooms Used to Work

Airplane bathrooms that utilize a vacuum system to flush were only first installed in 1982 by Boeing.

Before this, airplane bathrooms worked quite differently.

  • Pre 1930s: Either no toilet facilities were available or a bucket at the back of the plane would be used.
  • 1930s: In the 1930s, the first separate bathrooms with removable toilet bowls made an appearance.
  • 1945: In 1945, on long-haul passenger planes, fixed toilet bowls were used.
  • 1958: Airplane toilets started to utilize a flush system
  • 1975: James Kemper patented the first vacuum toilet, but it was only first used in 1982 by Boeing

Airplane Bathrooms Really Are Tiny

Generally, airplane bathrooms are 6 feet 3 inches high at the door, but get smaller towards the back.

The bathrooms on newer planes in economy class, in an effort to save space, are just 24 inches wide, which is about 10 inches smaller than they were before.

Airplane Toilets Are Very Loud

You’ve probably noticed that flying is by no means a quiet experience, and you can even hear the flush of a plane’s toilet if you are sitting near the bathroom.

This is because plane toilets can hit up to 100 decibels.

Airplane toilets are so loud due to the way they work, whereby a very powerful vacuum is used to suck the plane’s toilet bowl contents through pipes and into a waste tank every time the button to flush is pressed.

This vacuum is so powerful, in fact, that the speed at which a plane’s toilet bowl contents exit the bowl is faster than a Formula 1 car, travelling up to 150 meters per second — or 300 miles per hour.

Planes Dropping Waste From the Sky is a Myth

Contrary to popular belief, planes do not drop toilet waste from the sky – and there are regulations that airlines must follow to make sure that this doesn’t happen.

Additionally, pilots do not even have a mechanism in the cockpit that allow them to dump waste mid-flight, either.

However, on some occasions, toilet waste has leaked out of a plane’s undercarriage, which then freezes along with the tank’s liquid disinfectant to form “blue ice” that has hit people’s homes and caused damage.

In the U.S., between 1979 and 2003, there have been at least 27 documented incidents of blue ice impacts.

How Waste is Actually Removed From a Plane’s Toilet

Now you know that plane’s do not get rid of their waste mid-flight, you probably want to know what happens to all that waste that is accumulated during a flight – i.e where does the pee and poop go on a plane?

A plane’s toilet waste is stored inside a tank, which can actually accumulate as much as 230 gallons of waste on a long-haul international flight.

Once a plane has landed, special trucks attach a hose to the plane to suck the waste out of the plane and into the truck.

Once the tank has been emptied, another hose is attached to the plane to disinfect the tank.

There’s a Good Reason Airplane Toilets Don’t Have Any Water

There is no water in airplane toilets because plane toilets work differently to toilets on the ground.

A vacuum system is used to suck the waste out of a plane’s toilet bowel and into the waste tank found at the back of the plane instead of siphons to flush, whereby water enters the siphon and drains into a sewage system or septic tank.

Of course, due to the nature of flying and especially when there is turbulence, things could soon get messy if there was water in the toilet bowel, too.

Planes Probably Need More Toilets

The number of toilets on a plane depends on the plane.

For example, a Boeing 747-8 has one toilet for every 28 passengers, whereas the Airbus A380 and Boeing 777-200LR have one toilet shared between 30 passengers.

Generally, the newer the plane, the more toilets there are and the better the ratio of toilets to passengers.

In first class, sometimes there is 1 toilet for as few as every 12 passengers.

Airplane Toilets Won’t Kill You

There’s this amusing rumor going around that airplane toilets can suck the guts out of your body and kill you.

Rest assured, an airplane toilet won’t kill you, nor has anyone ever been killed from using a plane’s toilet.

Not All Planes Have Bathrooms

Generally, the smaller the plane, the less likely it is to have a bathroom.

So, small planes flown by private pilots will not have a toilet, but it can be possible to install a belted potty if a pilot needs to take care of business.

Fighter jets also don’t have bathrooms, with pilots having to use piddle packs and diapers to go to the bathroom during flights.

Private jets and commercial airliners are equipped with bathrooms, though smaller commuter aircraft and regional aircraft designed for short-haul flights may not have a bathroom.

Ella Dunham, a Freelance Travel Journalist and Marketing Manager, boasts an impressive career spanning eight years in the travel and tourism sectors.

Honored as one of "30 Under 30" by TTG Media (the world’s very first weekly travel trade newspaper), a "Tour Operator Travel Guru" and "Legend Award" winner, Ella is also a Fellow of the Institute of Travel, a Member of the Association of Women Travel Executives, has completed over 250 travel modules, and hosts travel-focused segments on national radio shows where she provides insights on travel regulations and destinations.

Ella has visited over 40 countries (with 10 more planned this year).