When are you allowed to pee on a flight?

Cabin lavatory/toilet in modern airplane.
There are certain times this area is off-limits to airplane passengers. (Getty)

This article has been updated to correct an earlier version that stated the policy was changed in 2018, along with a statement from the CTA.

A woman who was denied access to the lavatory during a grounded Air Canada flight recently made headlines after she went public with her story.

The unnamed Irish woman told local media about having to relieve herself on a Dublin via Toronto-bound flight that was grounded for two hours in Bogota, after repeatedly being denied access. She said she was eventually offered a $500 CAD voucher from the airline.

The incident left some wondering what restrictions would have to be in place in order for a passenger to be refused the use of a restroom.

Yahoo Canada reached out to three Canadian airlines — Air Canada, Westjet and Porter — for information on policies that relate to bathroom use on grounded flights.

A representative from Porter wrote in an email that the passengers “are requested to refrain from lavatory use when the seatbelt sign is on. This includes when an aircraft is taxing for take-off or to the gate, during take-off climb, landing and turbulence.”

If a passenger needs to use the restroom during a flight when the seatbelt sign is on, crew members will determine if it is safe for them to do so based on the severity of turbulence. When a flight is experiencing extended delays on the ground, passengers are allowed to use the lavatory once the aircraft has stopped.

Westjet follows a similar protocol. In an email, a representative from the airline said:

“Guests are always free to use the onboard lavatories while the seatbelt sign is off, including during boarding. Anytime our aircraft are in motion (taxiing as an example) guests are required to be seated with their seatbelts fastened for safety reasons.”

The airline added that in the instance an aircraft has an extended delay on the tarmac and is not in motion, passengers are allowed to use the lavatories. In these situations, crew will make a decision based on the circumstance and will permit guests to use the lavatories when it is safe to do so.

Air Canada did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.

Caption Ross Aimer, a retired commercial pilot and CEO of Aero Consulting Experts, describes the reported incident as “uncalled for” and says there’s no technical or procedural reason that a passenger can be denied the use of a restroom while the plane is grounded.

“If they were taxiing and someone gets out of their seat, the procedure is that they’d have to inform the cockpit and the cockpit crew would have to stop the aircraft while she’s in the bathroom,” he tells Yahoo Canada. “But in her case it was an emergency.”

Aimer says in his opinion, the situation involving the Irish woman sounds like a case of an overzealous flight attendant.

“The Federal Aviation Administration and Canadian authorities don’t want somebody getting out of their seat when the aircraft is in motion or taxiing,” he says. “If the aircraft is sitting somewhere, waiting for air traffic control...then there’s absolutely no reason not to let her use the bathroom.”

Gabor Lukacs, founder of Air Passenger Rights, is fighting for legislation that forbids airlines from keeping passengers on the tarmac for longer than 90 minutes. He tells Yahoo Canada that was once the Canadian industry standard, but updated policy allows airlines to keep passengers on the tarmac for up to three hours and 45 minutes, and these rules don’t have to be practiced abroad.

“Unfortunately the government didn’t follow recommendations by the Senate, but weakened the rules when it comes to tarmac delays,” he says. “What happened to this woman (who was denied bathroom access) is the exact reason we need passenger rights.”

Under the current regulations, airlines are expected to allow the use of lavatories. However, Lukacs says that’s not always a clearly defined or easily enforceable right.

“Getting off the plane is a somewhat enforceable right,” he explains. “Getting food, or getting adequate ventilation, or access to the toilet as sort of murky notions that this case (involving the Irish woman) demonstrates that you cannot clearly enforce on the spot. That’s why we need something clear cut.”

When looking to other region’s passenger rights, Lukacs describes the European Union as having the “gold standard.”

The non-profit group is working on a campaign to strengthen passengers rights that apply to Canadian flights everywhere, not only within the country.

The Canadian Transportation Agency says that the new Air Passenger Protection Regulations, which came into effect in July 2019, ensures that during tarmac delays passengers are properly treated, whether they occur in Canada or abroad.

“Standards of treatment for all tarmac delays include, at minimum, access to working lavatories, proper ventilation and heating or cooling, food and drink, and the ability to communicate with people outside the plane free of charge, if feasible,” the agency said in a statement.

It added that after a three hour tarmac delay at a Canadian airport, airlines are required to return to the gate so that passengers can disembark. However, a plane can stay on the tarmac for up to 45 additional minutes, if it is likely that it will take off within that period and the airline is able to continue providing the required standards of treatment.

However, if take off is not likely to happen within that 45 minute window, the plane has to return to the gate. The only circumstance in which airlines are permitted to exceed this time, is if they are prevented for reasons related to safety, security, customs or air traffic control.