The Future of Flight

It’s bad enough getting through the series of queues at major airports – check-in, passport control, security and boarding. But the relief at finally getting to your seat can quickly evaporate with cramped conditions, full overhead lockers and the realisation that you should have brought your own sandwiches. Flying, for many of us, has turned from a thrilling experience into a tiresome ordeal.

With global air passenger numbers set to double to more than six billion over the next 20 years, according to industry statistics, it’s a challenge that airlines are trying to confront. And with some success.

When Jill and Jeremy Joseph from London flew from Heathrow to Nice to attend a medical conference in Monaco recently, they noticed a number of improvements to British Airways’s economy cabin: contoured leather seats, with a fully adjustable headrest, a relocated magazine receptacle – now at the top of the seat back to free up some extra leg space – plus a tablet holder. BA’s short-haul revamp also includes mood lighting, powered by ecologically efficient LED lights.

It’s part of a global aero-industry trend towards using technology to put customers in their comfort zone.

Comfort is not just about ergonomic seats, of course. It’s about creating a sense of wellbeing the whole way down the line – through crew attentiveness, cabin ambience and a sense of spaciousness. Catering and inflight entertainment are factors, too.

“I think BA exceeds the standard,” says Jeremy, whose work as an eye surgeon makes him especially appreciative of visual aspects, though his comment also applies to the quality of service and the crew’s experience. Jill adds: “When we choose an airline, we want to feel we’re in safe hands. Traditional airlines convey that sense of maturity and assurance. For us, that’s a comfort factor.”

New Concepts

Successfully reconciling comfort for the maximum number of passengers with the built-in limitations of aircraft cabins is the Holy Grail of the airline industry. Though psychological factors have a role in building the comfort perception, the big challenge for airlines is simply how to maximise physical space for economy-class passengers.

Every spring in Hamburg, airline executives converge on the Aircraft Interiors Expo, where the latest cabin products are showcased by industry suppliers. Adventurous concepts and prototypes are exhibited to excited executives.

At recent Expos, seating in all kinds of unconventional configurations has been proposed. Airbus caused a stir in February when it filed a patent for a ‘re-configurable passenger bench’ – a seat that can be rapidly adapted for different combinations of passengers, from families with small children to people with restricted mobility.

It’s not uncommon for the kind of cabin amenities enjoyed in first and business classes to filter down to economy as airlines leapfrog each other to provide more comfort at the back of the plane. We’ve seen this already on long-haul flights, where fully flat beds, once the preserve of first class, have become the norm for business class across Europe.

Beds are now starting to appear in economy, too. Air New Zealand got the ball rolling with its ‘Skycouch’, with a triple economy seat that converts into a double bed. It’s a trend that’s starting to be seen in Europe, with Air Astana launching its ‘Economy Sleeper Class’ on flights between Kazakhstan and London Heathrow, Frankfurt, Paris and Hong Kong.

For many airlines, reconfiguring the seating isn’t an option, but might something be done with existing seating to improve comfort? Swiss textiles company Lantal has come up with the Pneumatic Comfort System (PCS), which lets passengers adjust the firmness of cushions.

The PCS cushions – which have been installed in some Lufthansa, Etihad Airways, Philippines Airlines and BA planes – are lighter than standard airline cushions, and this weight-saving could be exploited to add further amenities.

Overhead Space

Cabin comfort is also about having adequate stowage space for the paraphernalia that passengers bring onboard these days.

Predrag Sasic is a petrochemicals trader who flies every week from Zurich across Europe and beyond, with various airlines – in both business and economy classes. “My ever-changing work schedule and the fact that I have to hop on flights at short notice – sometimes with tight connections – means that there isn’t time to check luggage into the hold. So a bit of extra overhead stowage space would be welcome.”

That would suit airlines, too, as speedier stowage of ‘carry-on’ luggage helps shave valuable seconds when boarding and disembarking.

Boeing has unveiled its solution to the issue in the form of ‘Space Bins’. These new-generation overhead lockers have 48% more capacity than previous versions of its 737; so 194 wheelie bags, rather than 132, can be stowed. Alaska Airlines was the first to install them in October 2015, and United Airlines, Shandong Airlines and some European carriers are set to follow.

Getting Connected

All that extra gear that we’re taking with us on flights includes the digital devices that have so quickly become part and parcel of our daily lives. Funnily enough, airlines are actually quite keen for us to bring our gadgets into the cabin. Personal electronic devices (PEDs) such as smartphones and tablets are improving at such a pace that airlines are struggling to upgrade their embedded seat-back entertainment systems fast enough.

Airlines are asking themselves why they should invest in costly entertainment systems that add weight, become obsolete quickly and actually deliver inferior quality compared to their passengers’ own devices. An aviation IT survey indicates that two-thirds of passengers want to be able to use their own PEDs for inflight entertainment.

Airlines haven’t wasted time responding: International Airlines Group recently struck a deal with Chicago-based aviation technology provider Gogo to bring its satellite-based, high-speed broadband system to 118 BA, four Aer Lingus Boeing 757 and up to 15 Iberia long-haul aircraft. Installation starts early next year on the BA fleet, with completion scheduled for 2019.

So the drive towards connectivity is gathering pace – although for the time being it’s up to each airline to decide exactly when and how passengers can access the mobile networks.

Passengers might appreciate internet access using their own devices, but Predrag Sasic cautions that there has to be a balance: “On short flights I listen to music, and on long-haul I watch movies. I guess it would be useful to read emails on long flights, so you are not missing anything. On the other hand, sometimes it’s nice not to be reachable.”

Appealing to the Senses

Linking with our gadgets is one thing but airlines are also trying to connect with us through our emotions, via the touchy-feely elements of the inflight experience.

Those flying long-haul may have noticed a trend for using artificially sequenced LED ‘mood lighting’ that simulates the tones of sunset and sunrise, which, the makers maintain, can help reduce jet-lag; Virgin Atlantic and Emirates are well known for this.

Mood control lighting is spreading to short-haul flights: last year Icelandair installed an LED system on one of its 757s, Hekla Aurora, that uses coloured lights to simulate the Aurora Borealis in the cabin.

They can even be adjusted to cast a warm orange glow to make inflight meals look more appetising. But the wellbeing effect isn’t their only benefit: LEDs last ten times longer than previous lighting technologies.

Appealing to the senses takes in smell, too. Iberia has created its own cabin fragrance, called ‘Mediterráneo de Iberia’. The scent is intended to give passengers a ‘sense of wellbeing’, with notes of fruit, flowers and wood.

What’s Cooking?

Mealtimes are a key part of the inflight experience on any self-respecting airline. While the smell and ambience of a fine restaurant can whet the appetite, the food itself has to meet expectations. At altitude, cabin pressure reduces our senses of taste and smell by around 30%, so carriers are using new approaches to make food more palatable while retaining traditional presentation.

Travellers increasingly expect the kind of dishes they enjoy eating in a restaurant to be replicated at 30,000 feet. But much kitchen equipment is incompatible with onboard safety standards, and a niche industry has emerged making aeroplane-compatible espresso machines, convection ovens, frying pans and rice steamers – to cater for the more adventurous and demanding tastes of the worldly-wise traveller.

When Predrag Sasic’s wife, Mira, flew economy class from Zurich to Belgrade on Air Serbia, she felt the airline was recreating a sense of nostalgia: “Stewardesses were dressed like Pan Am crew and they served food with proper metal cutlery. I thought I was in for a return to the days of traditional service.”

So much for the interior. What about the planes themselves? There are some subtle differences in the shape of planes these days. More and more of them have winglets – the pointy tips at the end of the wings. And if you’re flying on Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner, you may notice the zig-zag shaped trailing edge on the engines. These developments save fuel, reduce emissions, drive down ticket prices – and also reduce cabin noise.

Carbon is Coming

All of these features are made possible by the increasing use of carbon composite in aircraft construction. It’s an incredibly tough and resilient material, composed of carbon fibres that are bonded and reinforced with polymers, and is superseding aluminium alloys and steel.

The latest Boeings and Airbuses, the Dreamliner and A350XWB, are around 50% carbon composite, providing strength and weight advantages. Aesthetically, composite material also enables design in the cabin to be more fluid. A new cabin design concept called Airspace by Airbus has already been incorporated into the company’s new A330neo.

Airbus says that Airspace cabins will be “more relaxing, inspiring, beautiful and functional”. The improvements will include larger overhead storage bins, more spacious lavatories, wider seats and aisles, and unobstructed under-seat foot space.

But the biggest improvement in the inflight experience ushered in by carbon fibre is that its greater structural flexibility allows for increased cabin pressure. Airlines have traditionally avoided raising cabin pressure because over time it puts greater stress on aluminium hulls, leading to metal fatigue and a shorter working life of the plane.

Why should passengers care about increased cabin pressure? A study conducted by Oklahoma State University found that reduced cabin pressure induces a general sense of discomfort and malaise, while greater cabin pressure promotes greater oxygen saturation, meaning that the body doesn’t have to work as hard to keep the blood oxygenated. According to Medical News Today, lower levels of oxygen reaching the brain can greatly exacerbate jet-lag symptoms.

The Human Factor

There are some things that smart technology will never replace. On Jill and Jeremy Joseph’s flight back from Nice, the pilot related the goal tally of the Liverpool versus Sevilla match as the Europa League final progressed. In an age when the pilots are locked out of sight behind the cockpit door, “it’s always nice to hear from the captain,” says Jill, who appreciates that “pilots seem to have that mastery of understatement”. Today’s crew image is about assurance, personal service and a gentle sense of humour.

Jeremy recalls, “I was flying back to London from Namibia in June just as results of the UK’s Referendum on Europe were starting to come through, and the captain quipped through the cabin PA system that he wasn’t sure whether or not we would be landing in the European Union that evening”.

Mira echoes that appreciation of the human factor: “It’s just so nice to step aboard an airline from your native country and feel a sense of being back home already.” She observes that “Swiss crew consistently strike the right balance of service with a smile.”

The next trend in cabin crew service will be the use of ‘big data’, as airlines continue to capture more passenger information and use it to ask if you want your favourite drink, as they address you by name.

Some of this data comes from passengers subscribing to airline loyalty programmes. Preferences are also tracked from online questionnaires and passenger feedback on social media. So don’t be surprised if, in the near future, crew have an idea of your musical tastes.

Let’s hope that the personal touch is one thing that doesn’t change about the inflight experience.

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