Pilots at AmeriJet International have nice big planes, but nowhere to go.
None of the cargo carrier’s eight Boeing 727s have lavatories, pilots say, forcing the pilots and crews to use plastic bags for all their elimination needs. “This is what you use for a Number One,” one pilot says in a YouTube video, grabbing a small green bag. “And a much bigger bag for a Number Two.” The video has become the most compelling argument in the pilot’s public-relations arsenal ever since flight crews went on strike August 27. Pay issues may be their top concern, but the lack of bathrooms has had the greatest resonance with the public, striking workers acknowledge. “Nobody can believe that there’s no bathroom on a plane of this size,” said Gordon Shaylor, a striking pilot who has flown for AmeriJet for 9 1/2 years. So at picket lines, and on YouTube, pilots have been hoisting the plastic bags, which the airline provides in lieu of a loo. “It’s degrading,” said Dawn Leschinski, one of two women pilots employed by the carrier. The striking pilots say AmeriJet originally removed the plane’s lavatories to reduce the plane’s weight and the cost of servicing the restrooms. “Initially, they didn’t provide anything,” said pilot and shop steward Kamal Patel. “The bags that you see … they didn’t even provide those. Eventually they realized there were some corrosion issues when crew members had to go into the cargo hold to use the bathroom. So that’s when they started to provide pee bags and bags to go Number Two.” Pilots say that the bags are fitted around a metal frame somewhat like portable johns used by campers. At the end of their flights, pilots dispose of the bags in an airport dumpster. Pilots also complain that there are privacy issues, since cargo handlers sometimes ride in the cargo hold, where pilots go to the bathroom. “You just have to be real discreet,” Patel said. “You have to do it in front of everybody else.” An AmeriJet official declined to comment on the lavatory issue, or even discuss whether the planes have lavatories. A Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman said lavatories, or the lack thereof, are not a concern for regulators. “That’s not an aviation safety issue. It’s a passenger or crew-member comfort issue,” said agency spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen. “There is absolutely no requirement for any aircraft to have a lavatory.” That includes large passenger planes used for cross-country flights, Bergen said. Nor does the Occupational Safety and Health Administration require lavatories on planes, saying aircraft do not fall under their jurisdiction. But one business industry group says lavatories should be a concern. Kevin Mitchell of the Business Travel Coalition, which represents corporate travel offices, called AmeriJet’s working conditions “worse than the sweatshops of the 1930s” and said it is a safety issue. “You cannot have these kind of conditions and have them compatible with safety margins. It just doesn’t work that way. You need motivated employees with good morale that are well-rested coming up to work to fly these aircraft,” Mitchell said. “Poor morale among flight attendants leads to poor service. Poor morale among pilots can lead to something far more dangerous,” he said. “These cargo aircraft are flying in the same space as commercial passenger aircraft. These pilots are making split-second decisions on landings, on diversions, on crossing runways. And you want these people to be well-trained, well-rested and with high morale — and that doesn’t appear to be the set of circumstances at AmeriJet,” Mitchell said. Pilots in the industry say the major cargo carriers all fly planes with lavatories, but several smaller cargo carriers have eliminated restrooms.