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When I step into an aircraft lavatory, the light is off and there is an indicator light saying to lock the door. Once I do lock the door, the light turns on, and otherwise, the light remains off. Why is it that I must lock the door in order to turn on the light inside the lavatory?

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    Another one in great line of toilet questions... :) – Karlson Aug 14 '14 at 13:16
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Three reasons for this:

The main reason: Passenger comfort. If the light continuously remains on, then if a passenger opens the door of the lavatory when the cabin lights are off, it will fill the cabin with unwanted light. This can be avoided by making sure that the door is closed before turning on the light. Aircraft lavatory doors and door frames are designed to make sure that light coming from inside the lavatory does not reach the passenger cabin and vice versa.

The secondary reason: Energy conservation. By closing the door, though the system is sure that no unwanted light will pass into the cabin, by forcing the passenger to lock the door before turning on the light, the system saves energy by not turning on the light whenever there is no passenger inside. Certain aircraft, but not all, have a little low-energy light to make sure that the passenger can still see inside (and thus be able to see the switch to lock the door) if the door is closed but not locked, but this is immediately switched off the moment the door is opened.

The tertiary reason (obvious): Privacy. The light also acts as an enticement (in case the "Please Lock Door" indicator fails to do so) in order to get the passenger inside to lock the door (because not locking the door will make the lavatory appear vacant to another passenger on the outside).

However, in cases where there are windows in the restrooms (is the case with certain A380s and B787s), sunlight from the outside could potentially enter the cabin when the door is opened. This can be avoided by using an electronic sunshade or by using a Boeing 787-style opacity setting that immediately darkens when the door is unlocked.

UPDATE: The above only appears to be the case on long-haul, wide-body aircraft (I last tested this on a Boeing 777) and not on narrow-body aircraft (the light only slightly brightened when the door, even with the cabin lights fully off, is locked when I tested this on both a Boeing 737-800 and Airbus A320 recently).

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    Believe it or not, there are many people who are unclear on the concept of locking toilet doors in Southeast Asia who also do not have great command of English. This is a great way to help them know to close the door, as the privacy is both-ways (most passengers would prefer not to walk in on someone using the facilities) – jmac Aug 14 '14 at 2:04
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    +1 nice answer! in addition to that, it is better for safety to switch off as much lights as possible in the lavatories when there are no people inside, to reduce the chances of electrical fires being started and no one to report it. – Nean Der Thal Aug 14 '14 at 5:31
  • @MeNoTalk By using LED lights, there is a much less risk of electrical fires than with older fluoresecent tubes. But yes, that is another reason (yet not as important as the three main ones I've listed above). – gparyani Aug 14 '14 at 5:33
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    In addition to privacy concerns, locking the door lets the crew know someone is inside (they may need to know in an emergency) and activates indicators that will save someone else walking all the way up the aisle only to find it occupied. – Kate Gregory Aug 14 '14 at 11:06
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    @damryfbfnetsi not a big deal but I was expanding "to another passenger on the outside" to also include crew and passengers further away than just the other side of the door, and including a safety reason (evacuations etc) on behalf of the crew as well as a privacy reason. – Kate Gregory Aug 14 '14 at 15:49
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As you can imagine, it is important to minimise consumption of resources on a plane, and maintain privacy.

If the light stays on the whole flight, electricity will be consumed very rapidly. As well, during night flights, those near the lavatory can get flooded by light. If you are entering the lavatory and the cabin is dark, an immediate flush of bright light can be disorienting.

To prevent passengers from accidentally opening the lavatory door on another fellow passenger, the lights will not turn on before locking the door, activating the "occupied" sign.

However, regulations require minimal light, not to mention the comfort needs; many would feel uncomfortable being in total darkness while trying to lock the door.

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    How much extra fuel would be consumed if the lights were fully on for an entire flight (as compared to fully off because nobody used the facilities)? I doubt it's enough to be a factor in any cost/benefit analysis. – phoog Jun 30 at 16:01
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    To be fair, American Airlines removed one olive from each salad to save $40000. Yes, for an airline, this is not much. Yes, airlines refuse (typically) to board faster, and instead waste money using slow boarding methods. But still, time wasted is their own, while resources wasted harm our world. – watwolves8855 Jun 30 at 16:32
  • But one olive per passenger is actually hundreds of olives per flight. One lightbulb per toilet is only a handful of lightbulbs per flight. It looks like there are about 12 kWh of energy in a kilo of jet fuel, so even assuming very poor efficiency of conversion to electricity you're talking about saving no more than a couple of kilos of fuel on a long haul flight. – phoog Jun 30 at 16:49
  • Suppose it is dark in the cabin. As in my answer, the light would be very distracting. Suppose it is during the day, and it is bright within the cabin. Then the only reason would be to nudge passengers into locking the door, in case they forget. Anyways, energy saved is energy saved. I do not disagree with you in terms of effectiveness of this method. – watwolves8855 Jun 30 at 20:10

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