By Kristina Smith
A hard-to-forget memory: a flight attendant friend imploring our group over dinner to never, ever, use tray tables when we fly. “People change their babies on those tables!”
Fast forward to mid-pandemic days, and everyone was wiping down everything with disposable antibacterial wipes, myself included. If you wanted to use the tray (or seat pocket, washroom, anything) you used a wipe first, right? What were the alternatives? None that I knew of. Until now.
Enter reusable (and stylish!) airplane tray covers – the eco-friendly alternative to the millions of single-use disinfectant wipes heading to landfills and oceans every day. Once we got our hands on some Go-Be Sleeves samples here at Wander, we were sold. So genius!
We connected with co-founder Barbara Booth to learn where Go-Be came from and where it’s going.
Wander: Can you share the inspiration behind the creation of Go-Be airplane tray table sleeves? What drove you to innovate in this niche?
Barbara: The idea for Go-Be was sparked in the winter of 2018 while I was dining with my best friend Cornelia Quinn, who expressed her concerns about the germs on the airplane tray tables. At the time, her son Jake, who has autism, was also battling leukemia, so they frequently had to fly to get his treatments. Like clockwork, Jake would come down with a bacterial infection two days after every flight.
Being a CNBC journalist at the time, Cornelia asked if I could investigate airplane hygiene protocols. So for several months, I spoke to airline personnel and flight attendants, and they admitted to me that the airplane tray tables are rarely, if ever, sanitized. (Covid later heightened the cleaning protocols, but many airlines have ceased these cleaning practices.)
In addition, microbiologists conducted an airplane hygiene study on behalf of TravelMath and found that the trays had 2,155 colony-forming units of bacteria per square inch on the airplane tray table compared to just 127 colony-forming units of bacteria typically found on a toilet seat. Much of what they found was disease-causing bacteria.
So, we realized that these dirty trays are a huge issue not only for the typical passenger but especially for those with autoimmune issues and food allergies. But what I found out next during my investigation is that most of the single-use disinfectant wipes that passengers use to clean their trays are causing extreme havoc on the environment! Many of the wipes on the market today contain harmful toxins and are made of synthetic fibres, so they never decompose.
As a result, these wipes are clogging our landfills and washing up along shorelines. Just think about it: According to the FAA, 2,587,000 passengers fly every day in and out of US airports. If only 20% of these passengers use just one single-use disinfectant wipe, that’s more than half a million wipes heading to our landfills daily. The waste is unreal. And the truth is, more than 20 percent of passengers are using these wipes, sometimes two or three at a time!
Armed with this knowledge, in July 2020, with infectious illnesses top of mind due to the pandemic, Cornelia and I set out to create a lifestyle accessory that would not only add an effective extra layer of protection between passengers and the germs lurking on their tray but one that would also eliminate the need for single-use disinfectant wipes.
In July 2021, we launched Go-Be Sleeves – airplane tray covers that contain a non-toxic, hypoallergenic antimicrobial technology that resists microorganisms from sticking to the fabric. Our sleeves are reusable and washable and knitted from a fibre created from BPA-free plastic waste pulled from landfills and oceans, so they’re eco-friendly and sustainable —and also made in the USA!
Our sleeves also come in beautiful designs that appeal to everyone, from infants to business execs. Go-Be Sleeves is not just a product but a lifestyle accessory that reflects our cultural shift toward style, wellness and sustainability. We are entirely unique in this category! We envision Go-Be to someday be the must-have lifestyle accessory every traveller will grab, along with their headphones.
We’d love a walk-through of the design process for the sleeves. What were the key considerations in creating a product specifically for airplane tray tables?
We wanted to create a tray cover that not only effectively adds an extra layer of protection between travellers and the germs on their tray table but does it in a way that is fun, stylish and, even more importantly, eco-friendly and sustainable. Ultimately, a brand that unites style, wellness and sustainability.
Promoting ethical travel is paramount right now because tourism has such a negative impact on the environment, mostly because travellers rely on single-use products and plastics to deal with health, safety, and hygiene issues. Beyond being safe for the planet, we also wanted to create a product that is safe for its users, which is why we chose a non-toxic, non-irritating, hypoallergenic antimicrobial technology. We are also committed to sourcing responsibly and producing our products in the USA.
It took a full year to create our product. We found that most airplane tray tables are 10 x 16 inches, so we were determined to find a quality material that had enough stretch to fit tray tables that were slightly larger or smaller and would maintain their original shape after stretching, while also ensuring that the design won’t be distorted when stretched.
The fabric also needed to wash well, be lightweight and fit into our honeycomb case when rolled up. These were some pretty big asks. So we contacted several US mills and told them what we were looking for, and for months, we collected sample fabrics of different weights and compositions. Each time, we tested the fabric at home on makeshift trays that we built.
We finally found the perfect fabric. Because we are committed to developing an eco-friendly product, our next challenge was to find a company that could knit this exact fabric composition out of BPA-free plastic waste. We ultimately settled on Repreve by Unifi, the leading brand of recycled performance fibre made from plastic bottles gathered from landfills and oceans trusted by companies such as Patagonia, NorthFace, and J.Crew. So, every time you purchase a Go-Be sleeve, you are already helping the planet before you even put it on your tray.
We researched all different types of antimicrobial technologies until we discovered one from the Swiss that is non-toxic, hypoallergenic, and non-irritating. It’s a bit more expensive, and the process takes longer because the fabric needs to sit in the antimicrobial bath after the printing process, but all our sleeves are tested in a third-party lab to ensure their quality and effectiveness. The antimicrobial technology we use is guaranteed to be 100% effective for 25 washes and safe for the environment.
Next, we needed to find a fabric-finishing and digital-printing plant that would print the designs on our fabric and be willing to work with the mill we chose because after the printer printed our designs, the mill would then have to immerse the fabric in the antimicrobial bath and send it off to the cut-and-sew team. We love our cut-and-sew team. So we work closely with three teams: the mill, the digital printing plant, and the cut-and-sew team, and they are all absolutely amazing.
At the same time, we work with our graphic designer, Amy Taylor, in New York. We send her ideas that we think will appeal to every gender and every age, and she fine-tunes them until we all agree they are perfect. The hexagon is an important symbol that represents Go-Be’s values, so we’ve incorporated the hexagon into many of our patterns. We also worked with an industrial engineer to design our honeycomb case and had it patented!
The antimicrobial technology in Go-Be sleeves is a standout feature. Can you elaborate on how this technology works? How challenging was creating an effective antimicrobial solution without resorting to traditional chemical additives?
Some antimicrobials contain chemicals that cause allergic reactions, and when washed, these chemicals go down the drain and can cause havoc on the environment. It was important for us to find an antimicrobial technology that is effective but at the same time non-toxic, non-irritating, hypoallergenic and safe for the environment.
The advanced antimicrobial technology embedded within our sleeves inhibits the growth and persistence of microorganisms on the fabric’s surface, making it resistant to microbes, bacteria, and viruses. The technology is 100 percent effective for at least 25 washes and registered with the US Environmental Protection Agency.
The lightweight honeycomb case with a magnet attacher is fantastic! Can you discuss the design considerations for the case and how it enhances the overall experience with Go-Be sleeves?
We designed our case to hold two sleeves in separate compartments, each opening separately so that unused sleeves always stay fresh. The last thing travellers want is another thing to pack in their bag, so our case needed to be super-lightweight and equipped with a handy magnetic tether that securely clips onto any carry-on, so it doesn’t take up any space in your bag.
The 2-pack design originated so travellers could use one sleeve for the first leg of their journey and one for the way back. But some of our customers told us they were using one of their sleeves for the headrest or sharing a sleeve with a companion! So we started selling individual sleeves, called Go-Be Solos, for travellers who wanted extras or just needed a refill.
We designed the case as a hexagon to symbolize strength and unity. When united, hexagons create a honeycomb structure in which the walls support each other at 120-degree angles, providing unimaginable strength. Through our Go-Be brand, we promote eco-consciousness and sustainability and hope that if everyone supports this mindset, the world will be a stronger, better place. With Go-Be, we hope to improve the world, one tray table at a time!
Our hexagon case is also 100% recyclable and dishwasher-safe. We are currently looking into developing a hard case made out of plant-based material.
How have you observed consumer behaviour change since the introduction of Go-Be sleeves, particularly in terms of awareness about hygiene and environmental consciousness?
Education is key. Many people are fearful of getting sick from the germs on the airplane, but what most people don’t know is that the dirtiest part of the plane is the airplane tray table, according to microbiologists who studied airplane cleanliness and hygiene protocols.
People use the tray tables to rest their (sometimes bare) feet, change their baby’s diaper, sleep and hold their dirty tissues. Food stains are evident on many of them. Many of our customers say that with Go-Be, they’ve lost the fear of germs and are enjoying the journey more. And many say they’ll never travel now without their Go-Be.
One woman contacted me in a panic because her husband left his Go-Be on his flight and needed another for his return, so we had to expedite her one! People with autoimmune issues and life-threatening food allergies are also big purchasers. Just recently, Olympic weightlifter Maeve Willis joined our Go-Be Ambassador Program because she has life-threatening food allergies and says Go-Be is a no-brainer for people with anaphylaxis.
Another thing I find incredible is that many of our ambassadors are flight attendants! When I travel with mine, they are the first to remark how cool these are and ask me where they can purchase one. The more significant challenge, however, is educating travellers on the harmful impact single-use wipes have on our environment. Wipes are convenient, and many airlines give them out to their passengers. But when we explain that many contain toxins and never decompose, they get it and fully embrace our brand.
Go-Be aims to eliminate the use of synthetic single-use disinfectant wipes, just like stainless-steel water bottles are replacing plastic water bottles and reusable bags are replacing plastic bags. It’s much more evident that plastic harms our planet; we are challenged with raising awareness about the harmful effects of single-use wipes because that is not as well known.
What has been the most surprising or rewarding feedback you’ve received from customers?
I love that people ask where I got my tray cover whenever I get on a plane. One woman sitting next to me on a plane from Boston to Indiana was so enamoured with our product she purchased one for everyone in her family, became our most successful ambassador, and is now our director of operations!
When we introduce our tray covers at trade shows, people say, “I wish I had this last week when I was travelling. Or, “Can you overnight? I’m leaving on a trip in two days!” So it just reinforces the need for, and the excitement around, our product and signifies a definite shift toward people’s willingness to travel more ethically.
We also get contacted by many employee wellness platforms who want to feature us because they say “Go-Be checks all the boxes” because our tray covers are sustainable, eco-friendly, and made in America. Go-Be also supports Ocean Conservancy, an organization committed to resolving the ocean plastic crisis.
Has customer input influenced the evolution of the product?
Some customers have asked us if we would combine patterns that typically don’t come in the 2-pack. That’s when we decided to offer the case separately and allow customers to tailor the packs how they want. We want to give them options.
Also, some travellers wanted to buy just one as a refill or an extra, so we started selling our Solo line, which consists of about 18 different colours and patterns. Our Solo line currently comes in our signature yellow-and-gray box that is completely recyclable but will soon be offered in a small reusable pouch made from plant-based material.
Because many of our purchasers were giving Go-Bes as gifts, we’ve expanded to launch different collections. I love this because we enjoy creating new patterns. Cornelia and I are both very creative, so this is our favourite part of the business! Our Kids Collection recently launched and is selling fast. These make great baby shower gifts, and I expect these will sell well during the holidays.
Our next collection, “My Happy Place,” will launch in the spring with designs depicting popular destination hot spots, such as California, Arizona, New York City, New England, Colorado, and Hawaii.
One more point I’d like to add: from the start, my co-founder was determined to entrust our fulfillment process to neurodiverse individuals, recognizing that this segment of the population is so underemployed. Her inspiration stemmed from the fact that her son Jake, now 21, has autism, and she has always been concerned about his own future employment. We are delighted to announce that this mission has now become a reality!