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.
Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. His latest book, An Engineer's Alphabet: Gleanings from the Softer Side of a Profession, has just been published.