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The next frontier of airport innovations is in the bathroom

All Gender Family Restroom at LaGuardia Airport, Queens, New York. (Photo by: Lindsey Nicholson/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images) (UCG via Getty Images)

Airports suffered a 10-year losing streak in America’s Best Restroom contest. Their bad run ended in 2016, when Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport won the coveted award, and their fortunes continue to rise. Tampa International Airport and Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport took home the prize in 2022 and 2023, respectively. The timing is no coincidence.

Over the past several years, airports have been focusing on the lowly restroom, pouring serious money into upgrading their latrines. Designers and engineers are expanding stall size, adding privacy features, incorporating technology and unveiling more inclusive facilities.

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“The intent was to make the restroom experience feel like a five-star hotel,” said Ty Osbaugh, a principal architect at Gensler, the international architecture and design firm whose client list includes Pittsburgh International Airport and JFK International in New York.

BWI spokesman Jonathan Dean said that according to passenger surveys, travelers rank plentiful and clean restrooms as essential to a positive airport experience, along with smooth security checkpoints and an intuitive airport layout. Terry Rookard, principal architect and senior vice president at AECOM, which works with Boston Logan International Airport and BWI, has heard similar feedback from travelers.

“It’s amazing how restrooms are one of the most important elements that influence a passenger’s perception of an airport,” Rookard said.

The Biden administration’s 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is helping foot the bill for some of the latest innovations. Punta Gorda Airport in Florida, Chicago O’Hare and Hector International Airport in Fargo, N.D., each received millions of dollars in grants, a portion of which they will use for restroom projects. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law’s Airport Terminal Program is also contributing to airport renovations.

Under that program, for instance, the Oakland International Airport secured a $10 million grant. The Northern California airport earmarked the funds for its Terminal Restroom Renovation Program, which will update restrooms and construct gender-neutral facilities and a lactation suite, among other plans.

The newest generation of airport restrooms is a significant upgrade from the facilities of yore. Paul Shank, chief engineer at the Maryland Aviation Administration, slightly cringes when he recalls the restrooms he built for BWI in the 1980s.

“I would call them public bus station restrooms,” he said. “You would appear at the stall, rattle the door and do all these things that would unnerve the customer using the stall.”

In a sign of the times, many of the renovated bathrooms don’t even have knobs.

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Contactless fixtures and smart sensors

The coronavirus pandemic accelerated the evolution from manual fixtures to automatic. At most airports, the slightest motion activates the toilets, sinks, soap dispensers and hand-drying machines. The one holdover: paper towels.

“As the technology for hand-drying has advanced, I think we see the demand for paper towels lowering,” Rookard said. “But every time we turn around, we hear that people like paper towels.”

In defense of paper towels, Michael Mezzetti, an architect with AECOM who has worked on restroom renovations at BWI, said air hand dryers can stir up pathogens and germs that have settled on the floor.

With the exception of old-school paper products, airports are embracing technology. “Tush lights” provide a less intrusive approach to determining whether a stall is vacant. Similar to the system popularized by parking garages, a light by each stall glows green when available and red when occupied.

The tush lights are part of a greater movement to protect the privacy of bathroom users: Airports are lengthening and widening stall doors, so strangers can no longer see feet or glimpse individuals through the cracks.

“The gap is minimized, because sometimes that’s something of a concern,” said Api Appulingam, chief development officer at Philadelphia International Airport.

For more efficient cleaning, airports are introducing “smart restrooms” with sensors to inform the custodial staff when toilet paper, soap and paper towels are running low. The technology will eliminate the time-consuming inspection of every dispenser.

“Before, they would open up each stall and check. Now they know they don’t have to do that,” Mezzetti said.

Airports are also reconsidering the materials they use in restrooms. Grouted tile used to be the trend, but airports have soured on the style, which Rookard describes as “impossible to keep clean, because they just get dirty and grungy.” The new fashion is larger tiles, glass or terrazzo - all of which are more hygienic.

“Most airports today will spend a little bit of extra money and use terrazzo, because it’s easier to keep clean,” Rookard said.

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Less walking to the next bathroom

For passengers’ ease and comfort, airports must provide facilities within a certain proximity of each other, according to Rookard. Some airports are shrinking the distance by half - from 600 feet to 300 - or more.

At the new Salt Lake City International Airport, the first hub airport built in the 21st century, Nancy Volmer, an airport spokeswoman, said passengers are never more than “150 feet away from a restroom in SLC’s concourses.”

In addition to growing in frequency, restrooms are expanding in size.

In 2017, Reagan National Airport launched Project Journey, a $1 billion multiyear plan that includes nine renovated and three new restrooms. Keith Autry, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority’s deputy vice president of engineering, said the restrooms and stalls will grow by 40 percent.

“They’re a lot larger,” he said, “so you can bring your luggage into them as well.”

BWI also increased its restroom size by 20 percent and hung stall doors so they open outward instead of inward. Shank said the new configurations will create “a sense of accessibility and not a sense of claustrophobia.”

More inclusive facilities

In a bid to become more inclusive, airports are creating environments that cater to the specific needs of a diverse traveling public.

Airports are adding lactation rooms and improving the spaces with comfortable hospital-quality nursing chairs, sinks and space for other family members. Mezzetti said BWI is also rethinking the placement of these rooms, which are often located near restrooms, even though they serve a different purpose.

“It’s not a restroom function,” he said, “it’s a feeding function.”

Men will start seeing baby changing tables in their restrooms, and adults who need a similar amenity can find changing rooms with furniture that can accommodate their needs.

“This is a dedicated space with an adult changing table, an accessible toilet, an accessible sink and a countertop,” Appulingam said. “It has plenty of space for somebody to maneuver in and out.”

The Philadelphia airport is improving access to faucets, which children and some passengers may struggle to reach. With Step 'n Wash, they can release the step stool, wash their hands and then return the accessory to its proper place under the sink.

Self-contained family bathrooms have always been gender-neutral. Airports across the country - such as Seattle-Tacoma, Kansas City International in Missouri and Philadelphia - are pushing this trend even further with all-gender restrooms, which will have individual stalls and a communal sink.

Better signage and artwork

When you have a plane to catch, or a new destination to explore, you don’t want to waste time scouring the terminal for a restroom. To assist passengers in their quest, airports are improving signage and even recommending alternatives.

At BWI, restroom signs have become more visible, with large icons and lights. Mezzetti said travelers can see the signs from their gate seats. Philadelphia is testing a digital monitor that displays information about the next-closest restroom, in case the closest one has a line.

“Hopefully, the information on the monitor that says, ‘Two minutes to the next nearest restroom,’ with an arrow pointing in that direction, will help,” Appulingam said. “Whether they decide to go to the bathroom or they don’t, at least they have some additional information available to them.”

To avoid snarls at bathroom portals, designers are creating spaces without dead ends. Passengers can enter and exit from both sides, which keeps the traffic flowing. They’re also configuring restrooms as two identical halves instead of one whole, which allows staff to close one section for cleaning while keeping the other portion open.

BWI is also tackling the restroom version of gate lice: friends and families who hover around the entrance waiting for their travel mates to finish their business. The airport has developed a waiting area with chairs or benches and murals, so “they’re not in the way of the operation of the concourse,” Shank said.

No one wants to hang out in the restroom, but recent beautification projects will make your time in the loo more enjoyable. Shank said BWI’s renovated restrooms feature tall decorative windows that let in abundant natural light and frame views of airport operations. Because privacy is imperative, the glass is one-way.

“You see the jets, the loading carts and the baggage out the glass, but they can’t see in,” Shank said.

Osbaugh said Pittsburgh’s restrooms will feature a custom tile designed for the airport and flower vases crafted by a local potter. The bouquets will change weekly.

Salt Lake City’s airport handpicked 18 artists for its Whimsy Wall project. The large-scale vinyl wall wraps appear in two dozen restrooms and have transformed trips to the bathroom into an art gallery stroll.

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