How a better food tray saves millions

Last updated 09:47 13/06/2014
Virgin Atlantic Food Tray

DESIGN TWEAKS: While the bright purple flatware is eye-catching, it’s actually the trays that will transform Virgin Atlantic’s balance sheets.

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Every ounce counts when you're hoisting several hundred tons of steel into the air and flying it across an ocean.

So does every second flight attendants spend waiting on the people inside.

Those ounces and seconds add up - and that's why Virgin Atlantic spent US$168 (NZ$193.26) million on a transformative redesign of its meal trays.

It sounds a little silly at first, but the more you think about it, the more Virgin Atlantic's new approach to aeroplane food makes perfect sense.

The company's executives enlisted the London-based design firm MAP to create a new Economy meal service experience, though first class service got some updates as well.

Apparently, Virgin executives wanted to make eating on an aeroplane a little bit more like eating in a restaurant with multiple courses served in different waves.

The designers went ahead and did a top-to-bottom overhaul, changing everything from the flatware to the trays themselves.

And while the bright purple flatware is eye-catching, it's actually the trays that will transform Virgin Atlantic's balance sheets. (Fun fact: Flatware on aeroplanes must adhere to very strict security regulations, which limited the possibilities for redesign.)

Thanks to tweaks in the design of those trays, Virgin Atlantic will see a 45 per cent reduction in greenhouse gases and related fuel costs. That will save the airline millions over the next few years.

The changes sound simple but add up to each of Virgin's planes being about 53 pounds (24 kilograsms) lighter than before.

The multiple course idea means that the trays can be smaller, small enough to fit four on a single shelf in the industry standard carts versus the three that currently fit. That means each cart can hold 33 per cent more food, and fewer carts mean less weight.

The trays also come with a spongy plastic coating on top that does away with the need for messy (and bulky) paper liners. The non-slip surface also means that the food doesn't slide around during takeoff, creating a mess for flight attendants to clean up.

Speaking of flight attendants, the upgrade is also designed to make their jobs easier. For instance, the new trays include a lip so that they can hook together. This means that when the flight attendant pulls one meal out, the next meals slide forward as well, so they can just grab them for the next passenger instead of having to reach into the back of the cart.

Flight attendants will also enjoy a similarly convenient adjustment to the design of the coffee pots. The old pots lacked clear labelling - unless you consider Sharpie scribbles to be clear labelling - and the handles hurt flight attendants wrists over time.

So MAP came up with a simple, sleek new design, including a wheel on the top where flight attendants can mark what's inside. A new ergonomic handle should do away with the wrist injuries.

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Again, Virgin Atlantic's redesign isn't so much about a new look. It's a practical approach that focuses on making planes more efficient.

There is a bit of whimsy at work here too, though. In first class, passengers will soon enjoy a two-tiered serving device that serves a sandwich and a piece of cake at the same time.

It does, however, take 11 seconds to put the thing together, which doesn't seem like the most efficient use of time.

It's unclear how that's going to save the airline money, but no major redesign is complete without at least one silly gimmick. 



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