From the air conditioning system to onboard wifi, aircraft have greatly advanced their capabilities to increase the comfort of passengers throughout a flight. Although many may feel they could never go without such modern amenities, some may take for granted the more conventional features of passenger flight. The aircraft toilet is a robust and advanced apparatus, though not without its fair share of theories and misunderstandings. As an integral facet of passenger aircraft that many may find themselves relying on at some point of a flight, understanding the functionality of the most underrated room of the aircraft can alleviate the longstanding questions that many may have always had.
For a passenger aircraft that may transport upwards of 400 or more individuals, the aircraft toilet system must accommodate all who rely on it. As such, aircraft often handle over 230 gallons of waste per flight, that of which is made possible through ingenious engineering. For anyone who has used an aircraft toilet system before, they know that such appliances are nothing like the standard toilets that one may see in their home or typical public restrooms. With a more conventional toilet, flushing is achieved through siphons that fill up with water, and waste is removed through gravity that forces it to drain into either a sewage system or a septic tank. With an aircraft, however, water cannot be present for draining due to possible spillage and added weight. As such, the aircraft toilet system had to be specifically designed to be functional without water.
In 1975, James Kemper patented the vacuum toilet, that of which would serve as the solution to passenger needs for longer flights. In 1982, the first vacuum toilets were implemented on Boeing aircraft, allowing for a toilet system that would not slush or spill during flight operations. Rather than using water, James Kemper used Skykem which is a blue substance that is capable of removing odors and providing disinfection for the surfaces of the toilet. Coupled alongside a non-stick bowl and vacuum suction power, the modern aircraft toilet system was complete. Although vacuum suction may produce louder noises, such a method of removing waste proved to save water and allowed for a more lighter installation, creating fuel and space savings for the benefit of aircraft operators.
Although the vacuum toilet solves the issue of removing waste while maintaining no water on a moving aircraft, there are still systems and components that must be in place to properly remove the waste from the toilet and later the aircraft. When an aircraft toilet system is flushed, Skykem begins to fill the bowl as a hatch at the bottom opens up for waste removal. Despite many rumors that the loud gush of air is waste being removed from the aircraft itself, such a thing would prove impossible for the safety of the aircraft and the surrounding environment in regards to adhering to the law. Instead, waste is forced out of the toilet bowl through powerful vacuum suction, and it is transported through a piping system. Once reaching the tail-end of the aircraft, waste is placed in a tank that is only accessible from the exterior of the aircraft. After the aircraft finalizes its touchdown procedure and begins ground-based operations, the tank is emptied using a specialized truck. By attaching a hose to the waste tank, the truck can remove all contents for disposal. Once the tank is empty, another hose is then attached to begin cleaning the tank with a disinfecting solution.
While there are many conspiracies of how the aircraft toilet system functions and their dangers, many are often completely fabricated. For one, those using the toilet do not need to worry about potential hazards and dangers of the vacuum suction, as the force of air could not do any harm without having a complete airtight seal over the toilet. With the toilet seat specifically designed to prevent such a thing from occurring, the dangers of vacuum suction harming someone is about nonexistent. Additionally, the contents of the waste tank and aircraft toilet system are unable to be ejected mid-flight by pilots, even if it would be beneficial for the weight of the aircraft. Despite the procedure being highly illegal for a variety of reasons, it is also a mechanical impossibility as there are no controls or functions that would allow for such a procedure.
Through the use of the vacuum system, Skykem, and the waste tank, handling and removing waste during and after flight operations can be conducted with ease. As such, the vacuum toilet has remained fairly unchanged over the past few decades. Despite this, improvements are still in the works for various facets of the aircraft toilet, such as improving the ability to clean and sanitize surfaces and appliances. In 2016, Boeing proposed a prototype for the next step of aircraft lavatories, that of which provides a larger space and the ability for self cleaning. By utilizing an ultraviolet light after each use by a passenger, upwards of 99.99% of pathogens could be removed in just a few seconds. Beyond the toilet bowl, the ultraviolet light could be placed so that it shines over the seat, countertops, faucet, and more for complete disinfection of the area. By having a seat that raises and lowers automatically during the shining of the ultraviolet light, an increased amount of surfaces can be cleaned for the benefit of passengers. Beyond removing pathogens, the cleaning system would also ensure odor removal, hands-free dispensers and faucets, a hands-free door, and more. With this prototype, the cleanliness and hygiene of the aircraft toilet system could be greatly improved upon.
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