While cursing my bad luck, I noticed that the passenger one row up and across the aisle had an equally deformed tray table. The flight attendant saw immediately upon setting down his drink that it would not stay in place on the slope. She returned to the galley and came back with the aluminum tab she had broken off a pop-top can, and she used it to shim up the cantilevered tray at its main hinge. When she came with my drink I asked for the same mechanical assistance, and she obliged. The fix was just right, and the table was perfectly flat and horizontal even when fully opened across the seat. Thank goodness for shims, and for mechanically inclined flight attendants.
The folding tray table was obviously designed to satisfy a considerable number of constraints, which it does. Thus, it is relatively lightweight, as well as compactable and deployable. These latter two qualities mean it has moving parts that are capable of getting out of kilter. Armrest tray tables clearly have not been designed to take the forces imposed by infrequent fliers wrestling with the puzzle of how the thing deploys and stows, or by frequent fliers who use the table as a crutch for rising out of their seat. Such overloads naturally can and do throw the mechanism out of alignment. All designs have limitations, but not every user respects them.
The case of the airline tray table points out one of the asymmetries of the designer/user interrelationship. The failure of an armrest tray table to deploy into a flat and level surface, perhaps leading to a drink spilling into a passenger's lap, might result in a product-liability lawsuit, with possible career-altering implications for the table's designer. But a passenger who engages in heavy-handed misuse of the table, causing it to be permanently off level when in its deployed position and thus setting the stage for a drink spilling into some future passenger's lap, can simply walk off the plane when it reaches its destination. Neither life nor design is always fair.
Yes, Henry, I agree that ticket price is paramount for air travel consumers -- including myself. And I can't imagine travelers choosing on airline over another based on anything but price. So I guess that says it all. No reason to improve comfort.
The airlines may be satisfied with the design of the interior elements of their planes, but of course that does not mean that there is not room for improvement. The main selling point for economy air travel seems to be ticket price. Passengers seem to give that much greater priority than amenities relating to seat comfort. My feeling is that until passengers in large numbers let it be known that they are not satisfied with what the flying experience is like, the airlines will not redesign it beyond changes that bring in more revenue, such as more leg room, etc.
Thanks Henry. Yes, I understand the economics of space for the back of the plane. And the space has grown smaller over my decades flying. The basic design of tray tables, arm rests, seatbelts, etc. has also been static for decades. I would guess the airlines are simply satisfied with these design elements.
Airlines seem to have put their seating R&D dollars into improving the business and first-class sections on international flights, where seats transform into beds of a sort. Econmony class seat design does seem to have been static for some time. There has been, however, some improvement in leg room for a price to the customer. With the increasing prominence of narrow-body regional jets, it seems unlikely that economy-class seats will get wider. There seem to be simply too many constraints from available space and revenue to allow for much improvement.
The maintenance story reminds me of an episode of the cartoon Animaniacs in which two of the characters are trapped in an elevator. They try to contact the maintenance department over the intercom, and overhear the supervisor telling one of his employees: "Hit it with the hammer, Big Ed. No, the hammer... that's a wrench, that long thingy's a hammer..."
Later, after being trapped in the elevator for ten hours, the characters try to contact the maintenance department again.
"Are you still in there?" the maintenance supervisor replies. "It was our indication that you got out."
"Really?" the character says. "What gave you that indication?"
"That's just an indication we had," says the supervisor.
The story of the mechanic pounding the broken table into submission is great! It shows how the human element can be the ultimate enemy of designs of all kinds. I wonder how long it took that tray table to finally be fixed so it could be both gotten out of and put back into the seat arm? Poor maintenance can be worse than no maintenance at all.
The cardboard tray wouldn't weight much more than the plastic plate sitting on it, and unlike the plate, the tray would normally be secured. Even if left unsecured the tray wouldn't be much of a projectile, but adding foam-rubber edging would limit the damage when kids play with the trays. In normal use the edging would also keep cups and plates from sliding off.
I had to check the date of this commentary - 2012, not 1965! In the '70s I worked in aircraft seating design. Those First Class seats were a wonder of engineering. Their weight-saving, weight-supporting design were worthy of awards. I'd think the present-day comments would have been unwarranted, even back then. Surely engineering has progressed since...or has it?
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