A Curious Lack of Coffee Cup Error-Proofing in the Air


About a week ago, I was flying, and the passenger beside me knocked his water over right into my lap. Argh!

I sent a Tweet posing a “contest with no prize” (as I didn't want to stifle creativity with an “if-then” reward as Daniel Pink's book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.)

The tweet posed this challenge:

“How do you error-proof things so the guy next to you on the plane doesn't spill his water in your lap? Ideas? Yeah, I got wet.”

I got some creative replies:

Replies included:

Yes, it's good it wasn't hot coffee or red wine or the keyboard (I was actually reading a magazine at the time).

But the sippy cup and lid comments made me think (and tweet):

@superfactory Why does Starbucks give you a lid for the car but airlines are too cheap to give lids?

I remember a time when airlines used to offer a lid for a styrofoam coffee cup, like the one pictured below.  Now they no longer do.  Oh, plastic lid, how do I miss thee?

I can only assume this is mindless cost-cutting. The lids cost about 5 cents each. If every fast food restaurant and Starbucks can afford the hit to their profit margin to give you a lid, why not the airlines? If it's unsafe to have a hot drink without a lid in your car, how is it safe to have a hot coffee without a lid in an airplane that often has turbulence? I'm surprised we don't hear of lawsuits resulting from hot coffee spills in flight.

Airlines seem to be one of the industries that focuses way too much on cutting costs (a.k.a. being cheap) instead of trying to offer better value and a better experience to passengers. I'll take that back, Southwest (not charging for bags) and JetBlue (offering more value — TV). Do Southwest and JetBlue offer lids if you ask?

Lean isn't about being cheap or mindlessly cutting costs. Eliminating waste is a far different concept than cutting costs. There's lots of waste in aviation – I wish they had addressed that before cutting costs. Accountants love cutting costs — removing the olive from each first-class salad saved American Airlines $40,000 in 1987. It's been a pattern of cut, cut, cut and passengers are miserable (as are the airline employees), while the airlines are still struggling financially. Maybe cost-cutting is the path to financial success?

As the Wikipedia page for Dr. W. Edwards Deming says (a lazy cost-cutting way for me to find a reference):

… when people and organizations focus primarily on costs, costs tend to rise and quality declines over time.

Maybe I will buy a sleeve of lids that fit the airline cups — for coffee and for water! Am I allowed to bring those through security?

Yes, I know — how “green” is that? The lids could be recycled or they can be made out of that weird corn/plastic material (you know the “green” forks that bend and snap easily, but they're environmentally friendly!).

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Thanks for generously tagging my tweet as “creative” instead of “utterly unhelpful”.

    I’m not justifying here, but I think it has as much to do with speed of service as cost of the lid. They are generally trying to get through the cabin in as little time as possible. Lids slow that down, just like more options do, such as different sizes.

    Along the theme, why do cars all have button-release, retracting seat-belts but all planes have latch, non-retracting. A seat-belt with 10 inches of extra space is just about as effective as none at all. But of course if the passenger doesn’t tighten the belt, they can say “it wasn’t our fault.”
    .-= Jamie Flinchbaugh ´s last blog ..Zildjian versus Viacom =-.

  2. Hi Jamie – I’m not sure if I buy the speed argument, since they do all sorts of avoidable time-consuming things (like pouring a coke into a glass for you instead of just handing out cans).

    To the seat belts — is it partly that a retracting mechanism adds weight and something else to break?

  3. Your Deming quote just became very useful as I have a review with my top customer on Monday who wants to focus on “cost reduction initiatives.” I think I’ll headline the opening slide with that quote!

  4. Kevin, do you think the customer will want to listen?

    It would take a special customer relationship to say honestly “Our cost cutting initiative is to NOT have cost cutting initiatives!” :-)

  5. My 5Y analysis involved gravity, center of gravities, ergonomic layouts, fluid dynamics, and respect for people. I’ll spare you the details.

    I’ve been politely suggesting cup holes in table trays for years. They might not solve every spill…but it’s a step toward getting better.

    Some clever folks beat me to the design. Great moonshine opportunity though. :-)


  6. If you want to error proof your beverage and still be green, fly with your own thermal cup. You’ll get a larger cup of coffee (which you might consider increased value), it’ll stay hot, and it won’t spill. Of course, you’ll have to schlep it around and clean it, but at least you’ll be living lean and green.

  7. I’m not sure if airline coffee is worth all the fuss. Still, nobody wants a lap full. I work overseas so fly into the States on foreign airline and usually in the ‘bleachers’, so the coffee is fair and generally a small cup, never to the brim for safety reasons I presume. I suggest you keep on eye on your air mate and make sure he has a steady hand and pays attention to his tray.

  8. Mark

    Cupholders, cupholders, cupholders, unfortunately no one has bother to tell aircraft manufacturers to design them into the planes, every other type of vehicle seems to have them except mass transit ones, how hard can it be to design a simple cup holder. My first boat which bounced more than most planes had them twenty years ago, for the last 10 years I have not seen a car without them though some have fewer than they should or they stick them someplace dumb, most movie theatres have them (cut cleaning cost dramatically), airlines and aircraft makers just have to wake up.

    As to the seatbelt, they are a safety requirement, the automobile types are not strong enough, so I have been told. Anyway someone who designs seatbelts for race cars say they are the same as an airplane or custom, made for a drive with zero adjustment and a tougher mechanical system


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