When I purchased my first airplane, I asked the previous owner what kind of range I could expect from the long-range fuel tanks on my new Skylane. Without answering my question, she shot back with a snippy response, Longer than your bladder. Thats for sure.
This pilot made a key false assumption – that I cannot use the facilities in the airplane. With all of the personal sanitation devices available today, going to the restroom in the airplane is easier than pulling your car into a rest stop. Free from that limitation, long-distance flight is something I routinely do. In fact, I enjoy it. With a cooler of food and drink, I look forward to my picnics in the air.
There are a large number of pilots who create their own solutions. Ziploc bags stuffed with paper towels or disposable diapers, wide-mouth soda/juice bottles, adult diapers (such as Depends), even anti-freeze jugs are pressed into service. Some airplanes even come equipped with a relief tube that merely vents the liquid into the slipstream (and possibly all over the tail).
Since buying the airplane, I have earned the dubious honor of being something of an expert in aircraft personal sanitation devices. Indeed, whenever my wife and I fly anywhere for more than 2 hours, we almost always need to go to the restroom in the sky.
We have tried all of the commercial products available. The bad news is that this clearly has the potential to be a nasty stinking business. The good news is that its quite possible to pull it off with just a little inconvenience and suffer little in the way of mess and odor. Well leave questions of personal dignity out of the discussion for now.
At one end of the spectrum is the Little John. This is a fire engine red plastic urine container sold by Sportys. Like the lowly soda bottle, it has only a cap to prevent spills. For the fairer sex, there is the Lady J Adapter, which purportedly makes it easier for women to use the container – though easy is a relative term in this case.
The Little John is often what people think of when they consider the possibility of airborne relief. It was the first urine container I ever saw and its always stuck me as sort of, well, disgusting.
First of all, the Little John is obviously a urine container, not a multi-purpose urine and vomit container, as advertised. I mean, whos going to put their mouth anywhere near this thing? Better to blow chunks all over the pilot for being so thoughtless.
If you see the Little John in someones airplane, you will know what it is and you will wonder if it has ever been used. You will also likely avoid it at all costs (it being both the Little John and the airplane).
Second, the Little John is designed for repeated uses, but I have not yet met a single woman who would find this option acceptable. Plus, theres the problem of cleaning the container. Im not sure many FBOs would appreciate seeing you sloshing your Little John through the lobby on your way to the restroom, where you dump the contents in a toilet and then wash up in the sink.
For these reasons, I had always assumed that no one ever used the Little John (or anything like it). However, when I took an unofficial poll on the Cessna Pilots Association forum, more than half of the respondents indicated that they use the poor cousin of the Little John – the wide-mouth soda bottle. Obviously all men, these Cessna owners had high praise for the soda bottle option, because you can just throw it away when you land (just please dont hand it to a lineman).
Moving up the scale, but only slightly, we come to the Convenience Bag. This bag is advertised as useful for vomit and urine disposal, and for vomit, its probably the best. Its small and compact. It has a large opening. Its easy to use. But for urine, it ranks low on the totem pole.
On first impression, the Convenience Bag appears to be a simple white plastic bag with a large opening – like you find in the seat pockets on airliners. However, there is more to this container. The Convenience Bag has a plastic inner valve that seals liquids in the bag. It also has a rigid collar that can be locked after use.
The latest version of the Convenience Bag also has a hand protection sleeve that, although not advertised on the packaging, can be reversed to provide further protection from spills after use.
From an engineering perspective, the Convenience Bag is quite ingenious. Once you have used the bag, the valve automatically seals the contents. This feature works moderately well, although it can leak slightly if the bag is bounced around or handled excessively. However, theres nothing in the bag to solidify or deodorize the contents.
Thus, even though the bag is sealed, its still a bag full of urine (or puke). If youre making a long cross-country trip – which is the reason youd buy the things – you could easily accumulate a stash of bags full of warm, smelly urine.
For this reason, the Convenience Bag is unacceptable to those who object to riding in a flying outhouse, according to my wife, who provided the womans perspective for this review. In addition, although the bag is easy to use, and although the rigid opening is more than sufficient for a womans use, there are no accessories. For example, there are no tissues (which women want), and there are no antiseptic wipes (which the competition offers).
In short, the Convenience Bag is an acceptable urine container, but needs some work to become more user friendly.
Brief Relief and Restop 1
Stepping up the ladder of convenience leads to the Brief Relief (also known as Restop 1). It wasnt long after I started making long cross-country flights that required in-flight bladder relief that I discovered Brief Relief at an FBO. My wife and I have used many Brief Relief (maybe 50 to 75), and initially we were fairly satisfied.
Brief Relief consists of a blue plastic bag that contains a powder that turns into a gel when it gets wet. The bag has an inner chamber that contains a blend of powdered enzymes, polymers and deodorizers. There is a one-way valve that allows liquid to flow in but prevents most of the powder from falling out. Once used, the power quickly turns the urine into an odor-free gel.
The original version of Brief Relief had a slider bar to seal the bag after use, while the newer version has a better zipper seal for closing the opening. However, if the bag were to be punctured, the gel would ooze out of the bag.
We had three primary complaints with the original Brief Relief. First, before and during use, you must be extra careful not to spill the powder from the bag. Although the bag contains a one-way valve, some of the powder still manages to seep out of the bag. This is more of a problem for women because the powder could get into the urinary tract and cause infection.
Second, we always wanted a container for the used bag, but one was not provided. Finally, the original version of the bag was difficult for women to use because it took two hands to hold the bag open and in position, which didnt leave an extra hand for other purposes.
A recent redesign addressed these shortcomings. Interestingly, when the company deployed the new incarnation of Brief Relief, it also introduced an identical product called Restop 1. Brief Relief and Restop 1 are the exact same product, except the Brief Relief is gray (and marketed mostly to industrial customers) and the Restop 1 is blue (and marketed more to retail customers).
The design changes serve to make life easier for women – with easier being relative – and also serve to make the product more user-friendly for men as well. One change is the inclusion of both a tissue and sanitary wipe with each bag. My wife heralded this as a welcome feature. So far, none of the competitors have copied the move.
In addition, changes were made to the physical product itself, which now sports a large plastic collar around the top.
The plastic collar allows you to grip the thing more firmly during use, but its still not a one-handed affair. To the contrary, you must apply pressure to the collar to split the two sides of the collar, otherwise it snaps shut when you most definitely want it open.
In all, this redesign turned out to be a wrong move, in our view. Kinda makes you wonder if the engineers tried it or are sitting back at HQ snickering with pity. The flaw is even more glaring for women, who now must contend with the collar deforming the one-way valve, which can result in leaks or overflow during use. If thats not bad enough, there is also a gap at the back of the collar that makes unintended leakage possible.
The redesign also did not address the continuing problem of powder seepage. Even in the new products, the outside of every bag seems to have some amount of powdery residue. Additionally, even though these products now provide a plastic zipper seal in the plastic collar, the seal is no substitute for a separate container (such as another bag) to hold the used product.
Despite their flaws, the Brief Relief and the Restop 1 are reasonably good products. Fortunately, theres something even better.
#1 Travel John
Short of a private belted potty in the back of the airplane, the best personal sanitation device for disposing of liquid in an airplane is the #1 Travel John (also known simply as Travel John, and sold in Europe as the MiniPotti).
The #1 Travel John is similar to the new version of the Brief Relief and Restop 1 products, but without some of the shortcomings. The #1 Travel John consists of a white plastic bag that contains a powder that turns any liquid into a gel in seconds and completely deodorizes. That sounds familiar enough, but the differences are dramatic.
The #1 Travel John also has a plastic collar, but it is fixed and well-designed for both women and men. The collars spill guard makes one-hand operation possible without any leakage. Best of all, when folded, the entire unit (even with the fixed collar) is only 2x2x5 inches.
Another secret of success for the #1 Travel John is what the company calls its Liqsorb super absorbent pouch. This fabric pouch contains the magic powder that turns liquid into a gel and resides within the main pouch.
The fabric pouch retains the powder with no leakage, even with vigorous manipulation. After using 100 to 150 bags in sometimes challenging conditions, neither my wife nor I have ever detected any powder residue.
After use, the Liqsorb pouch also retains the gel, which makes the plastic bag more secure than the Brief Relief/Restop 1 products. It seems that the pouch also results in a more solid gel. The design even aids in preventing spills in the event the outer bag is punctured. Because of this extra security against leakage, the #1 Travel John meets EPA and OSHA requirements, whereas the competition does not (or cannot) make this claim.
An enhanced version of the #1 Travel John, dubbed the Disposal Personal Urinal Kit, ups the ante by including almost all of the necessary accessories. The kit includes the basic #1 Travel John, along with an attached plastic-zippered bag that is designed as a hand guard during use.
The extra bag comes folded down for initial use, but then afterwards, the bag may be unfolded and sealed by the zipper. In addition, this new version also includes a sanitary wipe (but no toilet paper), which may be used and placed into the new bag-within-a-bag-within-another-bag design before zipping the whole thing together for disposal when its more convenient.
Quite simply, the #1 Travel John is as good as it gets in small airplanes.
Using the restroom in the sky is almost always cheaper than landing to refuel. Extending range while minimizing cost is the name of this game, but you can take the notion a bit too far.
The cheapest option by far is the wide-mouthed soda bottle. After you drink your soda, you have a place to deposit it. However, unless you are uniquely capable, the soda bottle is not an option for women. Next is the Little John, which Sportys offers for $4.95 each. However, using it only once (which would seem to be the least distasteful thing to do), puts the price tag at $5 per pee.
The Convenience Bag is a good deal at about $1.50 a bag. But, for urine disposal, its no bargain. Brief Relief and Restop 1 are marketed differently by its manufacturer, American Innotek. Brief Relief is available in industrial bulk units of 100, whereas Restop 1 is more of a retail product. Both products cost from $1.60 to $3.48 a bag.
The #1 Travel John costs less than its closest competition at $1.39-$1.95 a bag. Both the old version (the #1 Travel John) and the new version (the Disposable Personal Urinal Kit) are available from the manufacturer, Reachgood Industrial Co. We prefer the discounted 18-packs of the original #1 Travel John from Aeromedix because, in addition to a great price, Aeromedix includes 18 large red zipper bags and sanity wipes at no additional cost.
For greatest economy, it should be noted that all of these products may be used more than once. The Brief Relief/Restop 1 and #1 Travel John products continue to absorb liquids after initial use. The Brief Relief/Restop 1 products hold about 20 ounces, and the #1 Travel John holds up to 28 ounces.
The #1 Travel John even has a volume indicator printed on the bag. Because multiple uses may result in odors, however, my wife forbids it when shes aboard.
When choosing your restroom in the sky, you now have a number of options beyond the well-known (and, in our opinion, unacceptable) Little John. For a good plastic bag for your liquid wastes, The Convenience Bag is an inexpensive, small, and perhaps messy option. For a better product, the Brief Relief/Restop 1 products offer an advancement in disposing of your liquid, converting the whole lot into a deodorized and manageable goo. The best product, however, does all of these things with better equipment in a better way at a better price. Indeed, after weighing the features and prices, the winner is clear – the #1 Travel John is #1.
-by Lionel Lavenue
Lionel Lavenue is a patent attorney and instrument pilot based in the Washington, D.C. area.