July 25, 2024

Napkins: Under the Fold

Stuart Forster discovers that the seemingly humble napkin offers a vehicle to convey brand values and communicate with passengers…

Napkins do more than simply catch drips from passengers’ drinks. The choice of their material – and how that relates to a napkin’s look and feel – sends statements relating to sustainability and reinforces a carrier’s values and aspirations.

“Historically, as the name suggests, linen was used, but these days, certainly in high-intensity hospitality, cotton or polyester are more usual,” explains Ellie Parkes, Global Business Development Manager at John Horsfall, as to why napkins – along with items such as tablecloths and service trolley covers – continue to be collectively referred to as ‘table linens’.

Today napkins are crafted from an array of materials and can be presented to passengers as plain or patterned, with the option of carrying a logo or message. Virgin and recycled paper, including airlaid designs, count among the choices available for disposable napkins. So too do sustainably sourced materials such as bamboo and sugarcane. 

Reusable napkins can be woven from cotton satin or customised blends. RPET fabrics, made from recycled plastic bottles, share their versatile characteristics with polyester while helping to divert waste from landfill is part of its appeal. 

Supplier perspectives

“Airlines increasingly use napkins to differentiate their onboard offering through custom designs, thicknesses, folding patterns or sealing techniques,” observes Jordan Lake, Business Development Director at Global-C, of notable trends relating to the use of napkins.

And reflective of the travel and hospitality industries, sustainability considerations play a greater role now than they did a few years ago.

Holly Bhakar, Head of Product at Plane Talking Products, has observed a shift towards eco-friendly and sustainable napkin options. Reusable or recycled materials are in demand, because of environmental concerns, and compostable and biodegradable options are preferred for disposable napkins.

“We favour materials made with unbleached fibres and opt for plant, vegetable or water-based inks or dyes when adding customisation to minimise the introduction of chemicals to the product that at the end of its life, breaks down into the ecosystem,” she explains.

Demand for natural fibres is also identified by Tim Morris, Head Global at Mills Textiles, who is seeing a rise in interest in pastel shades: “Nature is very much in our customers’ thoughts currently. There is interest in increasing wash performance – more cycles – and also weight reductions to reduce washing cost and to save water and fuel burn as they are lighter.”

“The vast majority of our napkins are rotable  – washable – so they are already sustainable to a degree versus disposable items. We always favour natural fibres such as cotton and linen…for biodegradability where possible and promote the use of recycled yarns if synthetic materials are needed,” he adds, noting that the company’s procedure of analysing a napkin’s performance assesses fitness for purpose and whether wash and performance durability can be increased.

Onboard textiles

With napkins, Parkes sees a parallel with broader developments in onboard textile usage: “There is a certain trend towards creating a home-from-home experience. In table linens this can translate as using more domestic, casual-looking fabrics with a handcrafted, textured appearance.” 

“That said, for a lot of premium cabin passengers, nothing will ever beat a classic, crisp cotton napkin in a smooth, bright white, so it’s a brave airline that moves away from that aesthetic,” she warns. 

Barcelona-based Cornelia Talmazan, Business Manager at MYDRAP, notes that in leading hotels paper cocktail napkins have been replaced with small textile napkins which enhance guests’ perceptions of having a luxury experience. Increasingly, that trend is being embraced by airlines and it is opening opportunities to convey targeted messages. 

“Certain airlines utilise pink-coloured items to signify Breast Cancer Awareness Day. With our technology, we have the capability to produce napkins in small batches, enabling customisation for specific occasions like this,” she explains.

Our napkins feature beautiful designs that appeal to users, and in the end, passengers often take them, keep and re-use – particularly the smaller sizes like coasters or welcome drink napkins. These napkins are used to be branded with the client’s logo, and taking them home leaves a lasting impression that helps foster customer loyalty,” she adds. 

“It’s becoming increasingly common for airlines to introduce napkins adorned with seasonal themed designs, aiming to create a more celebratory atmosphere within the cabins. For instance, some airlines utilise special festive napkins during the winter season holidays as part of this trend,” she adds, explaining that patented TEX technology facilitates production of seamless cotton napkins using 30% less raw material than traditional napkins while optimising energy and water resources. 

India-based NCM has also seen demand for disposable cotton napkins rise, with concerns relating to costs and environmental issues playing roles. “The cost is more or less equivalent to the washing and rotating cost of the cotton napkins presently being used by the airlines,” highlights company president Ajay Agarwal. 

The passenger experience 

Manoj Pridhanani, Chief Designer Officer and Head of Sustainability at Kaelis, agrees that choosing eco-materials and other increasingly environmentally sound practices are part of a broader effort by airlines to minimise environmental impact and is conscious of the growing emphasis on napkins’ experiential role. 

“It’s not just about their functionality anymore; airlines now recognise that napkins play a role in shaping the passenger experience and creating the desired ambience. Whether it is about conveying a sense of luxury in premium cabins or ensuring practicality in economy class, the design and texture of napkins are carefully tailored to contribute to the desired atmosphere during flights,” he observes – emphasising that involves differentiating the design of napkins according to cabin class.  

“In Premium classes, while cost remains important there are other factors that come into play too. The choice of materials and the overall sensory experience – like the feel of the napkin against skin – holds much weight in terms of importance. In these classes, where passengers expect a level of comfort and luxury, the overall quality and sensory aspects of the product become elements in the decision-making process alongside cost considerations,” he explains. 

“When it comes to First and Business class our priority is to provide a comfortable experience so we offer high-quality napkins made from cotton or cotton blends. These can be either reusable or eco-friendly disposable, based on passenger preferences. In Economy, we choose paper napkins to strike the right balance between affordability and maintaining a satisfactory level of quality,” he adds. 

Not all are equal

Parkes echoes that not all napkins are created equal: “There is a vast and interesting variation that can be created by the considerate use of different qualities, yarn count, material finishing techniques and weave constructions.” 

“All of our table linens are custom-made for each airline, right down to the individual yarns. Patterns and colour are injected to reflect the carrier’s brand personality and to enhance the overall appearance of the meal service,” she says, citing the example of the set created for Air Mauritius’ Business class, “which really captures their ‘island spirit’ aesthetic”.

Plane Talking Products’ Head of Product acknowledges there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution to choosing the right napkins explaining that: “…the ‘better’ option depends on the specific needs, priorities and values of the customer and their passengers. We take a balanced view that considers the environmental impact and the practical considerations which often becomes the most sustainable solution in many cases.” 

“We look holistically at the experience that our clients endeavour to create for their guests. For this it is essential to look at how the range of products work together as a suite but also how that fits with the service delivery,” says Bhakar, who is acutely aware that even small touches can play a major role in shaping a passenger’s dining experience following Plane Talking Products’ recent involvement in an onboard food delivery project for the Caledonian Sleeper train which saw the luxury service’s official tartan sustainably incorporated into designs.

Striking a balance

Global-C’s Lake is conscious that striking the right balance for clients involves considering design, sustainability and price factors without compromising the speed of products getting to market: “We strive to ensure our napkins are made from responsibly sourced materials and when requested by our airline partners, certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).” Environmental and sustainability considerations include sourcing products from multiple locations, providing employment opportunities while helping to minimise transportation costs and associated emissions.  

While sustainability plays a core role in choices relating to napkins so too do costs and passenger experience considerations. And, ever so subtly, making the right decisions enhances passenger experiences across cabins.