Galley Gossip: Passenger gets caught with pants down

Dear Heather,

Is it standard procedure for a flight attendant to force open a toilet occupied by a passenger if the plane is about to land? Under what circumstances has the flight attendant a right to do this?


Caught with My Pants Down

Dear Caught with My Pants Down,

I’m so sorry to hear you were caught with your pants down. I’m also sorry that a flight attendant had to see you that way. I’m sure it was embarrassing for both of you. On my flight from New York to Dallas last week I caught two passengers in the same position, but that’s just because they forgot to lock the door, not because I forced the thing open. So please, people, I beg you, do not forget to switch that little sign from vacant to occupied. That way we won’t have to avoid eye contact for the rest of the flight.

As for forcing a locked door open, it does not happen often. In fact I’ve only had to do it twice in my career and I’ve been flying for fourteen years. Once, not too long ago, I did it when I heard a young child yelling, “help, help, help!” because she couldn’t figure out how to unlock the lavatory door and another time when, seconds before departure, the passenger who had locked himself inside ignored our pleas to return to his seat.

“Sir, you need to come out! We can not depart until you take your seat!” my coworker cried, banging her fists on the accordion door. No answer. Just silence. Complete silence.

I gave it a try – knock, knock, knock! “Sir, are you okay in there?” Still no response.

“We’re coming in,” my coworker yelled, and two seconds later the door was pushed open. Startled, the man with the needle stuck in his arm jumped, causing it to pop out and blood to spurt all over the floor. The airplane was immediately taken out of service.


Because your question is lacking in details, I can not answer as thoroughly as I’d like to. What I want to know is just how close to landing were you? Was it an International flight? Which airport were you flying into? Just how long did you stay in the bathroom? Were you unable to use it prior to landing? Or had you used it so often throughout the flight you may have raised a few eyebrows? Did you take anything into the bathroom with you, say a paper bag or something that might look suspicious? Were you sick? Did you answer the flight attendant when he or she knocked on the door and asked you to return to your seat? During the flight had you been rude or caused a problem in flight? Had the flight attendants already done their final compliance check and were ready to strap themselves into their jump seats while you were in the toilet? Your answers do make a difference.

While yes, you should have been in your seat, as per FAA regulations, regardless of what was going on during your flight, the flight attendants may not have pried the door open so quickly. They may have given you a few more seconds to pull your pants back up.

You did mention that the airplane was about to land, which leads me to believe the seat belt sign was on. Flight attendants are required to advise passengers to keep their seat belts fastened at all times, even when the seat belt sign is not on, and customers must comply with seat belt regulations at all times. Recently Scott Carmichael wrote about a passenger who was paralyzed from the neck down when she used the toilet on a Continental flight and the airplane hit turbulence. It happens. And it can happen even when the seat belt sign is not on. On the Continental flight the sudden drop threw the woman against the ceiling, fracturing her neck. For the record, the seat belt sign had been illuminated.

On descent flight attendants must be strapped into their jumpseats. With you locked in the bathroom you are not only a danger to them (if you were to fall on top of them), but to the passengers you must pass in order to get back to your seat, and the passenger who now must unbuckle their seat belt and stand up to let you back into your row. If something were to happen to you, or anyone seated around you, the flight attendants would not be able to help. The flight attendants job, at this stage in flight, is to man the emergency doors. Not take care of you.

No one wants to be caught with their pants down, I know that, and I am sorry that it had to happen to you. But flight attendants have a job to do and when the seat belt sign is on you should be in your seat with your belt fastened about you. Not in the lav. Especially on descent or when there’s turbulence!

To read more about turbulence in flight and why it’s important to keep your seat belt fastened at all times, check out my Galley Gossip post A question about turbulence and being scared at work.

Hope your next flight is a better one.

Heather Poole


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Photo courtesy of (lavatory) Daquella Manera, (Continental Airlines) Phinalanji