My Kingdom for a Cup Holder

Thai Airways Boeing 777.      Photo by the author.

Thai Airways Boeing 777.     Photo by the author.

April 17, 2014

THE SIMPLEST THINGS, sometimes, make a noticeable difference.

I’ve brought this up in my prior critiques of economy class ergonomics, but let me ask it again: why don’t U.S. air carriers equip their seat-backs with cup holders?

I’m talking about the snap-down holders available on both Airbus and Boeing models. Most of the major Asian, Middle Eastern and European carriers have them, but I have never seen a cup holder on an American airline. Not once. Why?

It’s nice to have your beverage there in front of you without having to deploy the entire tray. There’s a lot more room to move around, and getting in and out of the seat is easier. As a bonus, you can use the thing as a hook for your headset or earbud cord.

I know, I know, of all the things to complain about. And airlines, rightly, put the bulk of their cabin investments elsewhere. But considering the minimal costs involved, why the hell not? These are not expensive amenities.

And I’d apply the same sentiment to, for instance, a slightly raised edge on the front of your tray table to keep items from sliding into your lap during turbulence. Just a quarter inch would do the trick. (Gravity, we expect, is something that the people who design airplane interiors are at least vaguely familiar with, though sometimes I wonder.) I can’t imagine the extra cost would be more than a penny or two, if anything at all.

Japan Airlines 787.  Photo by the author.

Japan Airlines 787.    Photo by the author.




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25 Responses to “My Kingdom for a Cup Holder”
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  1. Ron says:

    I don’t understand why all airports don’t have cup holders in the armrests of their seats in the gate waiting area. I’m always having to put my beverage on the carpet and bend over each time I take a sip. Lets smarten up airport management.

  2. Karl Moore says:

    I have always wondered that and the reason is cost. Airlines charge for everything nowadays. So I have found the solution. Just bring your own. Check out the Bevtender. Works both during takeoff and landing, as well as during flight while the tray is down. Light, compact and designed around coffee and airline plastic cups. Check it out!

  3. Lee says:

    I wish the engineers dealing with ergonomics would get together with the engineers in flight control. A tray that is level while sitting on the ground invites everything to vibrate back into your lap when the aircraft goes up and assumes its angle of attack

  4. Charles Guarino says:

    Or you could just bring your own cup holder:

  5. Scott says:

    As an aircraft mechanic, perhaps I might have another perspective.

    US airlines don’t have cup holders on their seats because they break.

    In the race to the bottom line, most US airlines have eliminated things that might give the appearance of shoddy maintenance regardless of their perceived utility.
    If a passenger were to sit at a seat with a broken cup holder, armrest, traytable, reading light, or power outlet, the passenger would think that these things should be in working order and some start to question the things that they cannot see. However, throughout a day things break and as things break, they don’t always have to be fixed right-a-way.
    As a mechanic, I try to fix what I can when it is found, but the airline frowns on taking a needless delay when the aircraft manufacturer says it can wait.
    Basically its math. By not replacing one reading light, I have inconvenienced one passenger, by replacing that light and taking a delay, I have inconvenienced 180 passengers.

  6. Melissa says:

    It seems like the cost of these would more than be made up by savings in cleaning and material lifetime.

    I once had a nearly-full can of Dr. Pepper sitting on the tray when the plane banked hard and suddenly. Pop was all over the bulkhead, window seat, and floor.

    Or they could just get on the PA and say “Hold onto your drinks, we’re about to perform a barrel roll in 3, 2, 1…”

  7. JuliaZ says:

    Just flew Alaska 2 yesterday from SEA to DCA and our 737-800 had the new Recaro seats. They are EXCELLENT, much more comfortable and roomy than the old ones. The power outlet with a separate USB port is brilliant and is actually placed in a location where you can use it without contortions. The tray table was fine with two cup indents and a little lip at the front but the whole thing is not hemmed in so a spill will drip on you (stupid). The seatback pocket is an interesting design that’s tiny (bad) but easy to see into (good) and impossible to lose things in (great).

    I did immediately hunt for a cupholder though, and there isn’t one. Damn. I wouldn’t use it for a cup, because as we have all noted, that would be easy to spill. But my water bottle or Diet Coke bottle would have been there the whole flight if there had been one.

    The Recaro seats recline 3″ which was adequate (and the same as the old seats) but the cushion material is different and increases overall leg room by 2″. This is a big win if you’re tall, I’m sure. The headrest design also seemed to be appreciated by tall people around me, and it didn’t annoy me, so all is well.

    On the whole, these new Recaro seats are great and I look forward to Alaska rolling them out to all their planes. I think I saw that they expected to be done doing that this year.

    • Patrick says:

      >> I wouldn’t use it for a cup, because as we have all noted, that would be easy to spill. << People keep saying this, but I'm telling you it's not true. I've used fold-down cup holders many times and spillage has never been a problem -- not any more than spillage on a tray table is a problem. If anything there is LESS spillage, because you're not as inclined to bump the cup holder as you are to bump your tray.

      • Mark from Cambridge says:

        Both the lack of lids and the lack of cupholders can be explained by airlines wanting to keep passengers in seats. If the tray is down and it’s got an open cup on it, it’s much more difficult to stroll around the airplane. Same reason airline magazines have clot busting exercises that involve clenching your quads and glutes while seated, even though standing and walking around is much better to prevent clots.
        Hope to stop by an open studio at some point.

  8. Stephen R. Stapleton says:

    If I may, I’d like to take a stab at actually answering your question (“why don’t U.S. air carriers equip their seat-backs with cup holders?”), Patrick. I think your question is perfectly valid.

    Almost all other airlines in the world, whether privately or state-owned, operate more or less as an extension of the government of their home country. By and large, in the rest of the world, transit systems (roads, trains, airlines) are viewed as public activities or, at worst, public utilities. Thus, they really don’t compete to earn a profit, but to earn loyalty and ridership. They are functions of national pride. Almost exclusively, US airlines, on the other hand, are designed as profit making enterprises (which is sad, because most airlines lose money). Thus, even pennies matter, sometimes pennies per passenger are the difference between losing money or making money in the airline business. US airlines compete in a highly competitive market place at a huge disadvantage and also compete almost solely on price. US airlines can never compete on amenities, as the foreign airlines do, because those foreign airlines can afford the amenities.

    To support my thesis, I point to Ryanair, a completely private airline out of Ireland that is cheap to the point of almost self-parody (the CEO once actually thought about installing pay toilets), while the other Irish airline Aer Lingus is the national flag carrier of Ireland. Until 2006, the government of Ireland owned 85% of Are Lingus and still owns 25%. Ireland won’t let Are Lingus fail and, as a consequence, it offers more amenities than Ryanair (which, I think, wouldn’t even have seats if government regulations didn’t require them — it would put the bus back into Airbus if it could).

    If you could offer a suggestion as to how US airlines could make money off having a cup holder, I suspect you’d see them on every flight before 2014 was out. Until that magic moment, I doubt you will see anything on US airlines that does not contribute directly to the bottom line. Things that make money suck up all the attention at US airlines to the exclusion of any other ideas.

    My two cents.

    • Patrick says:

      >> Almost all other airlines in the world, whether privately or state-owned, operate more or less as an extension of the government of their home country. << I don't agree with this, Stephen. You're painting with much too broad a brush. Many foreign airlines deal with the same, or very similar competitive forces that ours do, and do not have the anything-goes backing of their governments. To say they “really don’t compete to earn a profit” is nonsense.

      Your description of American carriers is similarly oversimplified. By your logic, why have any service standards at all? Why wouldn’t every airline just default to the Ryanair model? Because they wouldn’t survive. They do compete on amenities, and in fact the service standards at the legacy airlines have improved quite a bit, and are now often comparable with those of many foreign carriers.

  9. retiree says:

    Carlos has the right idea – all cups hot or cold should have lids.

    The fold-down loop shown is useless with an unlidded cup. Bump the seatback from any direction or move the seatback up or down and the liquid will spill.

    p.s. the airlines decide the seat configuration, not Boeing or Airbus

    p.p.s. Delta takes the prize for the dumbest domestic first class food tray. There’s no upper or lower turned-up edge, so any food especially the gloppy kind, can slide right into your lap.

    • Patrick says:

      “…p.s. the airlines decide the seat configuration, not Boeing or Airbus…”

      This is true. So that readers understand: aircraft seats are designed/supplied by outside vendors.

  10. Carlos says:

    I have a simpler request. Why not offer lids to beverage cups? Can’t cost more than a fraction of a cent and would contain spills caused by all but the most severe turbulance

    • Shulim Jemima says:

      Carlos, the amount of waste in cups alone on US airlines is 1,000,000 cups every six hours. Chris Jordan has created a fantastic photograph displaying this fact. See
      Adding “sippy cup” lids is more fuel on the fire. IMHO

      • Carlos says:

        Shulim — not to minimize the effects of disposables, but if there’s one place that lightweight disposables (such as paper or plastic cups vs. glass) make sense it’s in an airplane. Every pound of payload requires that you burn more fuel to carry that weight. And I’d want a lid on that drink whether it was in a reusable cup or a disposable cup. It’s a sensible use

  11. Julian says:

    That pictures begs another, somewhat-similiar, question: At what point will it be safe to stop constantly reminding us that “this is a non-smoking flight”? Maybe by time we are three decades removed from “smoking flights” we’ll be able to use the money saved on ubiquitous non-smoking decals, stickers, placards, electronic signs, and crew training (remember to emphasize that federal law not only prohibits tampering with smoke detectors, but also disabling or destroying them!) and buy some cup holders.

    • Al Gore says:

      Because Europeans and Asians smoke, so when they visit the US they need to be reminded.

      • Florin says:

        More people smoke in Asia and Europe than in the US, but there are smokers in the US as well.

        Flights in Europe and Asia have all been non-smoking for many years.

    • Anonymous Person says:

      The reason is one of certification and specifically re-certification once an aircraft is “live”. The new A350 and 787 models do not have no smoking signs on some of the overheads, instead they now have a no-mobile logo. I spoke to the head of engineering for the A380 and asked him why they still have an ash tray in the toilet door and he said it was cheaper to put it there than the cost of lobbying the certification authorities to remove the rule about it being there in the first place…

  12. Tom says:

    But it’s not a valid argument. Why would you think an edgeless tray table would contain spilled fluids?
    Also rather than spilling on the tray, the more likely event is the fluid filled cup sliding off the tray into your lap or onto the carpet. There is no downside to cup holders.

  13. Sean says:

    Imagine how much messier the carpet / seats would be if these were installed. People are filthy and limiting most beverage spills to a tray table is a decent way to reduce not only waste, but also messes and clean-up between flights.

    I’m not saying I agree with this rationale, but I can see it as being a valid argument.

    • Patrick says:

      I agree that passengers are slobs, but I don’t feel this would make things any messier. On the contrary… it’s much easier to spill and knock around a cup when it’s sitting on your tray than when it it’s secured in one of these holsters.