Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
Even for those who ride coach, air travel is no longer just about getting from point A to point B.
When the U.K.-based company Factorydesign unveiled its prototype for a new seat design aimed at economy-class flyers on long flights, it seemed like it could be an industry game-changer. The seat, no larger than a standard one, is designed to mimic the curve of the human spine. It will move along with the passenger as he adjusts his position to get comfortable, and then lock in place.
“All of these ultra-long flights present a challenge for airlines and their designers at a time when passenger experience is all-important," Adam White, the co-creative director of Factorydesign, told the Huffington Post.
Today, air travel is becoming more than just a means of getting passengers from point A to point B, especially on long-haul flights. With international trips lasting up to 19 hours nonstop, passengers who don't shell out for a more spacious first-class, business-class, or even a “premium economy” seat can get fidgety. And the highly competitive airline industry is taking notice.
Over the years, airlines and designers have been coming up with a plethora of innovations to entice flyers with the ultimate passenger experience. They include no shortage of radical seat innovations, as well as better in-flight entertainment and a fleet of on-demand services.
Some of these could very well revolutionize the way we fly—if they become reality. For example, taking a cue from the luxurious golden age of flying, one company has reimagined the cabin architecture so that a plane trip is more like being on a cruise. In this fantastical design, there are dedicated zones where passengers can move around and explore different entertainment options.
Then there’s Airbus’ “flying doughnut” patent, which seeks to open up the cabin space by arranging seats in a circle; deals between airlines and streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime that promise to “change the scene” of in-flight entertainment; and the integration of “intelligent personal assistants.”
Other ideas are not so good, including potentially charging flyers to use in-flight toilets, a disturbing upright sleep support system from Boeing, and Airbus’ patent to literally stack passengers on top of each other. Of course, these are just a handful of the hundreds of ideas companies come up with each year. Most will remain in the concept stage.
But this thirst for in-flight innovations reflects a yearning by airlines, particularly ones that offer full-service carriers, to reinvent themselves. And it’s not just about the seats.
“Standards, they creep upwards, so as an airline, you have to make sure that you meet them,” says Raymond Kollau, founder of Airlinetrends.com. “If you don't, people will say, ‘Well, I rather pay a few dollars more and get something I like.’”
Returning to the golden age of flight
Airlines weren't always about optimizing cabin space. In the ‘50s and ‘60s—often referred to as the golden age of flight—air travel was much more luxurious. Many airlines focused on onboard hospitality and mimicked hotels, says Kollau. Of course, there were for fewer people traveling by air then, and it was mainly reserved for the rich.
Here’s how one expert described it to The Sacremento Bee:
“Even in economy (class)—tourist class, I guess they called it—those seats would be like the best premium-economy or business class today,” said William Stadiem, author of the newly released book, “Jet Set: The People, the Planes, the Glamour and the Romance in Aviation’s Glory Years.” “The seats were [comfortable], the food was good. I mean, Pan Am was catered by Maxim’s of Paris. You had fois gras and smoked salmon along with caviar. Even in tourist class, it was great. You felt special. That’s why you dressed up to get on an airplane. It was a big deal.”
Because fares were regulated by the government, airlines were essentially competing on service alone. Then came the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, which opened up new business models. Southwest successfully introduced low-cost models where “every seat, every square meter has been used on board the aircraft,” says Kollau. “It’s very dense.”
Yet, over the years, shrinking seats and a lack of leg room have been a major complaints among flyers. So these days, airlines are once again looking at the hotel industry to see if they can add any “small touches” to improve passenger experience—things like on-board Wi-Fi, integrating the use of smartphones and tablets into in-flight service, or simply offering better coffee, a little bit more leg room, and some much-needed breathing space.
"The idea behind it is mainly how can you give passengers more choices when they travel, more control of the experience, and more convenience,” Kollau says. “Can you play with digital innovations and service innovations and can you learn from the hotel industry for some services on board in order to really make a difference?”
Airlines including Qatar Airways, Singapore Airlines, and Cathay Pacific—all of which boast a wide range of personal and digital customer services—consistently rank among the top of the list of the world’s best airlines. Part of the challenge is to make all this low-cost, and not just accessible to the one-percent. It also needs to be profitable.
In the end though, Kollau says, the quality of the air-travel experience still depends on the individual flyer. Maybe sacrificing some leg room and skipping complimentary meals to save $200 is exactly what you’re really after.