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The tray table is a huge part of the passenger’s interaction with the cabin and one that can easily turn sour. Whether it’s a lack of space on which to arrange all the little packets that come with the inflight meal (which becomes even more of a juggling act when you factor in IFE paraphernalia and personal items), ineffectual cupholders or even difficulty in deploying the thing in the first place, the tray table can be the focus of many passengers’ frustrations, particularly in economy.
What many passengers don’t realise is how challenging it is to design a tray table, and how much of a headache they can be for airlines. “It is one of those items more subjected to airlines’ analysis and acceptance,” says Rodolfo Baldascino, marketing and sales manager at seat manufacturer Geven. Geven's Piuma economy seat converts to a business-class setting with middle table (pictured above).
“The tray table design is very important to airlines as they frequently encounter big maintenance issues, especially with cassette tables,” elaborates James Park, managing director of JPA. “Common problems tend to be that the tables are heavy, difficult to deploy for the passenger, the mechanism gets broken by passengers and crew and items can get jammed or lost in there. This then causes extra costs for the airlines to fix the problem, not to mention the damage to an airline’s image if a passenger becomes dissatisfied if the seat’s table is broken or unusable, especially if they are travelling in a premium-class cabin. We try hard to design and engineer better solutions to make the tables easier to use for the passenger and easier to maintain for the airline.”
In premium-class cabins, designers obviously have more space to give over to passengers, and thus can do more with tables. For example, JPA’s design for Cathay Pacific’s new business-class seat (pictured right) incorporates a table that deploys horizontally rather than vertically from the centre console to make it easier to deploy and free up space. And on the JPA-designed first- and business-class seats for Singapore Airlines’ A380 and Boeing 777 aircraft, the table is stowed under the monitor to make it easy to deploy. “The passenger merely has to pull it forwards and this reduces the usual maintenance issues,” says Park. “The design also allows the passenger to adjust the table height and it can track back and forth so passengers can leave their seats whilst the table is fully laden or in use.”
One of Priestmangoode’s latest projects was the redesign of Lufthansa’s continental fleet. “Short-haul flights are a great example where simple design features can improve passenger experience,” says Luke Hawes, director at Priestmangoode. “Take the business-class seat (pictured left) for example. It uses the same 3-3 configuration as economy class, but the arms move out to give aisle and window passenger a wider seat. You can then deploy the backrest of the middle seat to create a small ‘bureau’ or cocktail surface between the aisle and window seats. This enables passengers to have a place to keep drinks, books or newspapers, whilst maximising their living space during the flight.”
Peter Tennent, director of Factorydesign, is keen to emphasise the importance of not getting carried away with the possibilities. “With the extra space, additional furniture and typically fixed back nature of seats in the premium cabins, the design and integration of the passenger table is less challenging,” he says. “Of course, the aim is still to offer the largest, stablest table possible and ease of use is paramount. There is no point integrating a table if the passenger doesn’t know how to use it, and airlines don’t want their crew having to waste time demonstrating its deployment, so it has to be intuitive.”
Geven’s Baldascino agrees on this point: “It should not overwhelm the passenger,” he says. Baldascino also points to the certification issues in designing tray tables: “What are the customer’s qualification requirements? What level of fatigue, abuse and loads does the equipment have to withstand? Is the aircraft type certificate static (CS/FAR 25.561) or dynamic (CS/FAR 25.562)? Is head injury criteria (HIC as part of the CS/FAR 25.562 (j)) part of the aircraft type certificate?”
In economy, the lack of space makes things even more challenging. “Weight, material, strength and size all need careful attention and solutions are often compromises that endeavour to answer certain contradictions,” says Tennent. “Tables must be rigid and stable, yet be integrated around a moving seatback. They must feel robust and sturdy, yet be light. They must be simple, yet move and fold away.”
Hawes points out that access to seats is another factor: “It can often be difficult for window passengers to access their seat if the aisle passenger has their tray table down. So the impetus is on creating a table that makes access easier and maintains living space,” he says. “The bi-fold tray table is a good example, where you can still use the table to work and keep a drink, whilst having more space.”
Passengers using the flight as an extension of the office is also having an impact on table design: “As increasing numbers of passengers work on flights, it means the ergonomics of the tray table and surrounding features become ever more important,” says Hawes.
A common annoyance is when the passenger in front reclines their seat. However, Park believes things are improving: “There is a new trend for the design of a fixed-back seat shell in economy and a number of carriers have this in service now (Cathay Pacific being one of them). This will eliminate this particular issue.”
Baldascino also says that technology is making things better: “Difficulties are usually overcome through market research, experience, customer feedback and especially through the use of software that takes into account the latest human anthropometry.”
One way of freeing up room is by adding a cupholder. “If an economy-class passenger wants to store their water bottle or drink and doesn’t want to limit their personal space by deploying their tray table then a cupholder is a good solution,” says Park. “Many airlines request this as part of the design of their economy seats.”
Tennent agrees they have a place: “There are already seat products with cupholders and they work well, even in short-haul product offers,” he says. The Acro Superlight seat, designed by Factorydesign for Jet2.com (pictured right), is one example to sport this feature.
However, Hawes is not fond of fold-down cupholders. “They don’t last and every time one breaks, specialist engineers have to come on board to fix them,” he says. “A better cupholder solution is one that’s designed as part of the surface on a tray or armrest. For instance, many bi-fold tray tables have a cupholder designed into the surface when the table is folded. This means you can keep a drink without the risk of spilling it and still have a surface on which to rest a book or computer.”
So if they had the opportunity to start afresh with tray table design, what would designers do?
“We would reconsider the materials used and take as much weight out as possible, simplify the mechanisms to make it easier for passengers to use and reduce maintenance issues, attempt to make tables more rigid and try to maximise the table size in first and business class,” says JPA’s Park.
“If I were starting afresh, I wouldn’t redesign the tray table, I would look at new and innovative methods of meal delivery,” says Priestmangoode’s Hawes. “I would also look at the ergonomics of the seat as a working environment and consider a more digital approach to working (for example, tablets) rather than having tray tables. Generally, I think it’s more about redesigning the seat to make it lighter, thinner and giving more space to the passenger, than about redesigning the table.”
Meanwhile Geven is considering developing additional functions for the tray table. “One of those could be to install provision for advertising/institutional communication from the airlines on the back by means of a special window,” says Baldascino.
For Tennent of Factorydesign, the key things are to “get your angles right and beware of stiction overcome by vibration (when that glass of water ends up in the passenger’s lap)” as well as to make sure if a cup recess is used then the cup fits it, and most of all, “keep it simple, simple, simple”.
This article was written in February 2012 by Izzy Kington for Airline Catering International Showcase 2012.