United Airlines

As airlines continue to innovate the ergonomics of flight, some passengers will sleep easy. Others won’t.

“Airline travel has become like going to the dentist,” said the United Airlines CEO and president Oscar Munoz said at a recent press conference. In both instances, he suggested, people dread getting into the chair.

Consider ear-popping pressure changes as the plane lifts off or descends, or creaky, aching joints stiffened after hours folded up to fit within a measly sliver of legroom. Though I’d definitely take a long delay at JFK over a root canal, I see Munoz’s point: flight doesn’t generally feel good.

But that fact has opened up a competitive space for companies to innovate in the comfort of flight. And they seem to be scrambling to one-up each other’s plans. Last December, one firm released a prototype of a seat that adapts to the curve of individual passengers’ spines. In March, my colleague Aria Bendix wrote about the Airbus A350, a plane equipped with LED lights and an air control system that help to allay the effects of jet lag by stabilizing Circadian rhythms as passengers rocket across time zones.

This week, United has set its sights on optimizing the sleep experience for its higher-paying customers, debuting prototypes for Polaris, a revamped “lounge to landing” experience that, Munoz said, aims to “make the weary traveler a relic of the past” for international business-class flights.

Before boarding, customers can hang out in sleep pods in terminal lounges, then wake up long enough to trudge on board to their seats, which recline fully flat into a 6’6” bed. (They’ll also be able to illuminate a “Do Not Disturb” sign.) There will be cotton PJs, plush slippers, and custom luxury bedding designed by Saks Fifth Avenue—plus noise-cancelling headphones, lavender pillow mist, and eye shades.

The first Polaris flights will take off in December on Boeing 777-300ER aircraft; the amenities will later be retrofit onto older planes. Lounges, which include daybeds, are slated to open at Heathrow, SFO, LAX, and Newark, among other airports.

This project is part of an industry-wide trend to enhance the experience of customers at the front of the plane. But as journeys get more pleasant for those closer to the cockpit, it can be increasingly uncomfortable for the folks in the rear. After all, there’s a finite amount of space for passengers to share on a plane. Unless the planes get larger or differently configured, one group taking up additional room often means that there’s less to go around.

Often, that means the main cabin gets squeezed—and squeezed again. Between the ‘70s and the present, the horizontal distance between average airline seats has shrunk by 4 inches; seats are narrower, too. It’s a serious enough problem that in April, New York Senator Chuck Schumer asked the Senate to require the Federal Aviation Administration to impose standards on the size of seats and aisles and amount of legroom on aircrafts. "It costs you an arm and a leg just to have room for your arms and legs," Schumer told CBS News. (The proposal failed.)

Customizing the design of the new lay-flat seats allowed United to avoid crunching the economy class, says spokesperson Jonathan Guerin. But that dynamic—spreading out in one place; squeezing in another—is playing out on many airlines. In December, Aarian Marshall summed it up this way, citing research by the sociologist Elizabeth Berman:

The richest 21 percent of passengers use about 40 percent of the commonly used Boeing 7777…while the next richest 27 percent use 20 percent, and the hoi polloi in economy class—the last 52 percent—take up just 40 percent.

It seems dreamy to doze off in a pseudo-boutique hotel above the clouds, but luxe accommodations for some passengers can exacerbate inequality in the skies. For the foreseeable future, some passengers will sleep easier than others.

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