After taking many flights last year I began to build up a list of things I’d love to see improved. I’ve thought about every interaction and process that became a nuisance, discomfort or inefficiency to my flight. The airline industry needs to move into a phase where design around user experience becomes the primary objective - profits will follow. Virgin Airlines is leading the way on this front and I fly with them whenever I can - I want to go much further. In this post, I attempt to outline areas in which the airline industry could improve the millions of human hours spent in the air. In many cases, these issues are the results of over-regulation, however, there is scope to out-engineer the issues.
Containerize the airline industry
One of major issues we see is with the unloading and loading of passengers. Time, energy and human comfort is sacrificed daily because we cannot load/unload people onto planes fast enough. We end up wasting around 20 minutes on both the load and unload cycle (40 in total per trip).
I suggest we take a leaf out the shipping industry. As the book, The Box outlines, the shipping industry was extremely inefficient and non scalable before the standardization of the 40 ft high cube container in the 50’s and 60’s. With standardization, came speedy onboarding, pre loading, flexibility and efficiency.
If we re-engineer planes to have the cabin level detachable, we could add more doors and preload passengers into an airconditioned and powered unit at the gate with a precision conveyer belt to take the container cabin onto the main plane. We already do containerization for luggage. Passenges and crew could preload onto the cabin at the gate sorting out pre flight checks before the base plane was even there! In fact, passengers could load into the glorified container straight after security and not have to walk to their gate. Airports could achieve high packing density and we could have a production line of planes taking off in multiple lines. Passengers would save time/energy and airline would have flexibility to use different planes as the base to carry the cabin. The cabin would become the differentiator, not the entire plane. I understand the engineering complexity of such a system is high but the shipping industry also once had the same barrier to entry and proved the model works.
Take safety online
It would be silly if you had to recheck all safety tests with an independent agency before driving a car every single time. Having to watch the simple safety instructions every flight is a waste of time and energy for the passenger. No one even watches it anyway. We need to take this online and out of the cabin, making it a test that people hold a license for, rather like a driving license.
Create more space
Since the removal of free luggage on many airlines and the miniaturization of devices, people are travelling with hand luggage as their sole luggage. We have seen the huge increase in problems this has created in the overhead bin space. We need to increase the size of this space and be more flexible on sizes you can carry on in the first place. We should increase the cabin height and take up more original cargo bay space. I understand they have increased the space on the 787 Dreamliner and the A380 but I have not experienced them yet. I predict they have probably not gone far enough. As a simple fix, we could use some simple cameras to figure out where space is and flag a green LED for free space just in the same way some car parks do this for free parking spaces. Additionally, we could vacuum pack jackets and collapsable items.
Global entry may be able to speed up border control for people in the US. I’d like to see a worldwide standard for this, where we can be prescreened to be a trusted global traveler in a trusted network. As you probably know, clear are speeding up security checks by making their own privatized security line. Visa and custom forms need to be taken online. People constantly don’t have pens to fill out these forms and they fill out similar information every time. These areas are probably the easiest areas to speed up. Even an array of iPads at border control with a data entry app could work. If people could fill out their visa forms from the entertainment terminal, you could have a standard laser printer on the plane that could print out the data on the standard forms, or better still from the passengers credentials in their Virgin online account.
If we fitted meshed chairs (Aeron style) we could allow people to reside in higher levels of comfort and temperature control. Passengers need better localized control on their personal surrounding air temperature and humidity. Right now, the controls are cruder than cars for the 1940’s. I see passengers frequently too hot or too cold, which helps add stress to our immune system while flying helping us receive the common cold. Having highly localized temperature displays on your personal screen might help the user understand how to control their temperature or hydration level. We need to redesign the experience based around the following principles:
- Maximization of sleep
- Maximization of entertainment
- Maximization of blood circulation
- Maximization of passengers control on their environment
- Skin breathability
- Minimization of disturbance
- Reduction in backstress through support and maximized inclines.
Right now, little to no deep thought has gone into any of the design of the aircraft chairs. Switching to leather seats at Virgin was a good start for skin breathability and temperature control at the surface of the skin but the seats have a very long way to go. Staggered chairs (like a cinema) might allow more incline on chairs for the same packing density. Also, more exotic layouts may allow various tiers of seating to be produced.
Planes don’t seem to be optimized for sleep. Given this is one of the best ways to recover for travel, this seems backwards to me. Some non-exhaustive solutions:
- Lenses that focuses reading light into the reading area without spread onto other passengers spaces. We could even use polarized light to reduce the ability for someone else to see the light while sleeping.
- Adding an option to switch off notifications from the captain except emergency notifications.
- Contact lens cleaning solution and high quality night masks for purchase.
- Using blue lights / daylight bulbs to help time zone people in and out of sleep and to prevent jet lag.
Cut the noise
Using some acoustic engineering approaches, we could battle unwanted noise that contributes to reduced sleep and lack of relaxation. Likewise, we can improve the quality of the experience and let the passengers immerse themselves in their entertainment content. Some ideas for improvement here:
- Active noise canceling for zones of the cabin: many of the frequencies on the plane are fairly regular and could be cut out with antisound. Speakers could be built into seats or above the seat facing down. I’m aware that some planes do this but I have not experienced quality that is sufficient yet.
- Use “quiet zones” like you have done on Virgin trains.
- Using hum, buzz and interference filters on the local audio jacks to bring audiophile quality to the sound.
- Adding dynamic range compression to the audio feed so that no volume spikes occur on passager announcements.
- Using laser / ultrasonic zoning of noise, which I’ve seen some night clubs use.
- Noise suppression of the flush in the bathroom/restroom. I think the volume is too high to be safe.
Many of the little details in the functionality of components in the plane have been overlooked. Briefly a couple of ideas:
- Allowing passengers to see the additional data about the plane. Internal cabin pressure, temperature, cabin humidity etc will help passengers understand what they have to do to keep warm, cool or hydrated.
- Telling air stewards/stewardesses that your belt is connected with an LED so you can have the belt under the blanket. Frequently, people have their belt on, below the blanket and have to be woken up during turbulance or for landing because the staff do not know if the passenger has the belt on.
- Using magnets rather than turn fob for securing tray tables. Rather like apple laptops power adapters use magnets.
- Removing silly things like entertainment controls on your arm rest. These frequently activate the screen when your trying to sleep. Bring it all to the touch screen interface.
- Better touch screen controls and higher resolution screens. These should be modular so screens can be updated as technology moves on, or so that you can bring your own iPad and hang it on the headrest.
As I understand, it is a common misconception that aircabin recirculated air makes you ill. It is the interaction with coughing and sneezing people that make people frequently ill after air travel. We need to look into specifically how we could reduce this issue. Maybe by coating common surfaces with silver or offering vitamin C tablets to everyone on the plane as part of the meal. There must be a solution to reducing the likelihood of getting a cold. Reducing direct drafts from the poorly designed temperature control systems would be a good start.
Restricted usage of electronic devices is ruining our entertainment experience. We must lobby hard to have these restrictions removed as they have little evidence backing up the risk of interference. I suggest we have a standard passed that will allow devices to be compliant during takeoff and landing by having clean EM outputs. Alternatively, we should electrically shield critical flight systems from interference so we can use all devices at any time on planes. This includes wearing noise canceling headphones at anytime during the flight unless the cabin staff is waving at you and needs to communicate.
The ultimate flight should be one where you want to jump back on an airplane. Until Virgin Airlines opened up, it’s as if innovation on the experience of the passenger just stopped in the 1960’s and has been going backwards ever since. We still have a long way to go though.