A trip into the best bathrooms in America at BWI Marshall Airport

Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport has a cheeky new distinction — its new bathrooms have been declared the best in the nation for 2023.

What went into winning such an award actually took years of work and thinking about the most private areas in most buildings.

“Two national surveys say restrooms are the most important thing to passengers, which blows my mind,” said Paul Shank, the chief engineer at BWI. “Another survey said it was the second most important. So, I like to say restrooms are both the number one and number two most important thing for our traveling public.”

BWI started its bathroom revamp during COVID and will eventually spend $55 million redoing its lavatories.

At this point, most of the planned six sets of restrooms are already renovated, including the one in Concourse B, which displays a banner announcing its newest superlative.

Cintas, a company that produces restroom supplies, bestowed the award on BWI after it put 10 bathroom finalists from across the nation up to a vote. BWI beats out restrooms in Iowa, New York and California.

“We really just started the contest as a way to honor businesses that put a lot of effort into keeping the restrooms clean for their guests and for their employees,” said Julia Walsh, a marketing manager at Cintas. “It’s a fun and quirky contest, but it is a great way to showcase businesses that really go the extra mile by doing that.”

The contest has been going on since 2002 and previously honored bathrooms that were able to clean themselves and ones decorated with turtles and manatees.

Hundreds of thousands of people vote each year.

What makes BWI special though is its ability to welcome travelers, give them privacy and keep them clean.

Shank said his team worked with passengers and custodial staff to build the restrooms.

“I challenged our design team to be better in the design and to ignore previous designs, including our prototype,” he said.

BWI increased the overall square footage of the restrooms to add more room for privacy and areas to place luggage.

The lobby of a restroom at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport.  Photo courtesy of BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport.

Photo courtesy of BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport

The lobby of a restroom at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport.

“Our passengers have an expectation of privacy in our privies,” Shank said.

The stall bathrooms go all the way to the floor and have lights that tell passengers which stall is occupied. The sinks have more space between them for people to set down toiletries and each stall is individually ventilated to cut down on unwanted smells.

Shank also wanted to make the atmosphere friendly and welcoming with natural light. The bathrooms face the airport tarmac. There are floor to ceiling windows that let in light, but don’t let anyone outside see in.

There are no hand dryers in the restrooms either.

“The problem with air dryers is they’re loud,” Shank said. “The noise they generate hurts the ears of a significant percentage of the traveling public.”

To keep the restrooms as clean as possible, BWI thought deeply about what materials to use when building surfaces.

“What we went with was all glass,” Shank said. “It’s an impervious surface, it’s easy to disinfect, it’s easy to clean, and it looks ultra-modern, it’s bright and shiny.”

Passengers using the new restrooms seem to be enjoying themselves too.

“It’s funny because as soon as I walked in I was like I literally out loud said, ‘Wow,’” said Annette Parks, a recent BWI traveler. “It’s totally private. The stalls were large.”

Parks has two young children and found the changing table easy to use.

“They have at the changing station, hand sanitizer, a sink right there and a trash can literally right there, which is really great because you’re not trying to hold your kid and, like, stretch to the nearest anything,” Parks said . “It was very convenient. You could tell this design had the parents in mind.”

Greidy Lara-Monterroso, a student who frequently travels from Baltimore to Illinois was another satisfied customer.

“It’s really clean. immediately as soon as you walk in, which is hard to say about a lot of airport bathrooms,” she said.

Shank says all six sets of the restrooms should be finished this year and he hopes to top the ones that have already been built.