Spinning a Dream

Forget the Boeing 787’s fuel economy. It’s all about the spinning cupholders.

The Dreamliner during its stopover in DC last week. Roger Mola

The Boeing 787 Dreamliner tour made a whistle-stop at Washington National Airport (DCA) last week, hoping to bring the media under its spell.

I liked the cup holders.

Sure, the Dreamliner may promise fuel savings from a light but strong hull made of carbon fiber. And its passengers may savor its small luxuries, which range from livelier air in the cabin, to ceilings that invite you to stand tall even in the toilet. Slide your finger over the control panel under a passenger window and within 60 seconds it darkens from sunlight to a drowsy dusk. The 787 could certainly lower the pain of crossing an ocean in Economy.

Yet it all pales in comparison to the cup holders, and I’m not the only one who’s distracted. When the 787 toured the world last summer, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer was equally entranced.

The idea behind the gadgets is not new, or not entirely. Cup holders are ubiquitous, from the minivans carting people to the airport to the very luggage they wheel into the cabin. On airliners, the concept of a cup holder operating independently from its tray table has been refined for a decade on non-U.S. airliners.

The novelty in the Dreamliner, at least for the style of passenger seat selected by its launch customer All Nippon Airways (ANA), is that the cup holders spin. Here, see for yourself:

You might argue that most airline coffee should be dumped intentionally. But when spills  happen accidentally due to in-flight turbulence, you will appreciate this Dreamliner amenity. Its cup holder lowers into place independent of the tray table, making the table useful for tasks other than holding your drink. In addition, the center ring spins like a gyro on pivot points, so that it rolls with the airplane in most attitudes, including your own.

Dreamliner pilots are in a better position to know when spills might happen, which may explain why they get standard drink holders in the cockpit. Federal Aviation Regulations allow the crew to have food and drink in the cockpit so long as care is taken. The FAA apparently missed the 1964 film Fate is the Hunter, in which spilled coffee shorts critical instruments and leads to a devastating crash. Last year a United Airlines pilot splashed coffee on the radio system, and in the ensuing confusion accidentally entered the code for a hijacked airplane, forcing a diversion.

Not that the cup holders in the 787 passenger cabin lack rigorous test. Its plastic construction may not equal the carbon fiber in the airliner’s hull, but it meets standards for impact and even for fire resistance (Code of Federal Regulations, Flammability of Polymer Composites (14 CFR 25.853).

Time will prove, though, whether it can withstand the passenger who uses the ring as a handhold while stepping over his seatmate on the way to the stand-tall toilet. Cup holders may survive the first delicate tug or two, but not the brutal yank as he trips over the fold-down footrest. Which, at first glance, also seemed like a dreamy idea.