At 35,000 feet, small design decisions have big consequences. Ounces saved, in the design of aircraft equipment, can vastly reduce carbon emissions for an airline's entire fleet.
Case in point: U.K. industrial design consultancy MAP was able to help Virgin Atlantic save an estimated millions of dollars in fuel prices over the next decade, just by designing a better economy-class food tray. And they did it while improving service to customers while also making meal service easier for flight attendants.
In 2011, Virgin Atlantic came to MAP with a problem. They wanted to make in-flight meals for economy-class customers more like courses in a restaurant. Instead of serving their passengers everything on a single tray, as in a cafeteria, they wanted to serve them their meal, and then dessert and coffee. The benefits for passengers? More room while eating, and less unnecessary stuff bouncing around trays during meals.
But there were considerable challenges to making this vision a reality. In-flight service on an airplane is heavily optimized for compactness and weight. In-flight meals, for example, are loaded up into industry-standard meal carts at airport catering facilities, which means that any new design has to fit into this existing cart.
The biggest advantage of MAP's newly designed tray for Virgin Atlantic is that it's more efficient than older trays. While only three trays could fit in every row on the old carts, the new Virgin Atlantic trays can squeeze four fully loaded trays in per row, allowing each cart to hold 33% more meals. From a practical perspective, it's the equivalent of Virgin Atlantic only having to load three food carts on a flight instead of four. In addition to these trays being lighter, MAP's redesign is saving Virgin about 53 pounds of weight (and its associated fuel costs and carbon emissions) per flight. Over millions of flights, that's a lot of fuel.
In addition to designing a more spatially efficient meal tray, MAP also improved it in other ways. Old Virgin Atlantic trays were lined with paper; the new trays use a spongy plastic instead to keep food items in place and to cut down on waste. In addition, MAP designed a two-tiered plastic stand for first-class customers that could hold a sandwich on one level and a piece of cake on another—an invention that can be snapped together in less than 11 seconds.
But the design work MAP is really proud of is the new coffee pot. For the last 20 years, Virgin Atlantic has used a simple, industry standard pot for serving tea and coffee to passengers. But while these pots stacked well inside the small storage spaces of the average Virgin Atlantic jet, they presented a number of problems for flight attendants. First, there was no way to tell what was in a given pot, leading to clumsy hacks where stewardesses would write "Coffee" or "Tea" on the pots in felt-tip pens. Second, the handles on these pots proved to be poorly designed, so after pouring hundreds of cups during a single flight, flight attendants experienced wrist pain and injuries.
In response to Virgin Atlantic's needs, MAP created an attractive round design with an ergonomic handle and a clever lid with an arrow on it that can be twisted to show what's inside: tea, water, coffee, or hot chocolate.
Only time well tell how many cases of RSI Virgin Atlantic's new coffee pots will prevent. The value of the new trays are much easier to quantify: The airline expects that across the lifetime of the new trays, they will see a 45% reduction in greenhouse gasses (and associated fuel costs) compared with the old trays. It's a good reminder that, even when measured in mere grams, the dividends of efficient design can pay off big.