You'd think they could just design better cupholders.

By Jelisa Castrodale
September 09, 2020
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What's the worst thing that could happen if you spill a cup of coffee at work? You soak several months' worth of calendar pages? You lose a handful of consonants on one side of your keyboard? Your chair smells like an abandoned Starbucks for the rest of the summer? Nothing really terrible will happen—well, not unless your workspace is in the cockpit of an Airbus A350. 

According to World of Aviation, Airbus recently redesigned an entire control panel for its A350 aircraft because the previous configuration made it dangerously easy for pilots to knock their coffee cups over. In the past eight months, two A350-900s experienced single-engine shutdowns because of spilled drinks on the control panel—which is where the engine start  switch and some electronic aircraft monitoring systems are located. 

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The problem is that pilots were using the previous control panel as "a makeshift coffee table" during flights, because they've found that the cup holders in the cockpit are too small. After those two high-profile incidents, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) banned all liquids from the center console, and Airbus updated its flight manuals to define that area as a liquid-free zone. 

"Airbus, being a good European manufacturer, builds cup holders sized for French coffee rather than US sized coffee," one aviation website noted. But rather than, you know, make the cup holders bigger, Airbus has designed an entirely new control panel, one which is resistant to liquid spills. 

Simple Flying reports that the first high-profile spill took place last fall on what was believed to be an Asiana Air flight when someone knocked their tea over. (The carrier has not been confirmed, but an A350 flying from Seoul to Singapore made an emergency landing in Manila on the same day that a spill-related incident was reported.) Several months later, a Delta flight from Detroit to Seoul had to be diverted to Fairbanks, Alaska just 15 minutes after a drink was spilled in the cockpit. 

Last September, a Condor Airlines flight from Frankfurt, Germany to Cancun had to be diverted to Shannon, Ireland after a pilot knocked his coffee cup over in the cockpit of an A330 aircraft. The cabin filled with smoke and a not-at-all unsettling smell of burning electrical components, but there were no injuries reported among the 11 crew members or 326 passengers. "We have comprehensively investigated this incident and reviewed the procedures of liquids in the cockpit," a spokesperson for the airline said at the time. "Our crews were reminded of [the need for] careful handling as well as to use appropriate containers for their water or coffee." 

If EASA gives its approval, the new spill-proof panels will be installed in A350-900s and A350-1000s within the next eight months. Maybe handing out a few Euro-sized travel mugs—with lids—would help too.