Science leads the way to a better passenger experience


CBS News travel editor Peter Greenberg flies over 400,000 miles per year, but often wishes that he could teleport to his destinations. During a recent 16-hour flight, however, Greenberg admits that he almost didn’t want his trip to end. Occupying a private suite that functioned as either a bedroom or office, based on his preference, he watched on-demand video on a huge flat-screen TV and indulged in gourmet meals that rivaled that of a five-star restaurant. “I was having too much fun,” Greenberg says.

On a mission to satisfy customers’ desires, commercial airlines are adopting the idiom “the sky’s the limit.” Ian Dryburgh, CEO of Acumen Design Associates, a London-based transport design firm that invented The Residence by Etihad and the first Bed in the Sky for British Airways says, “The airline industry is trying to rediscover the romance of travel—that moment in history when transatlantic travel was in its infancy and was really exclusive.” To do that, the US$25 billion airline industry is homing in on what their customers perceive as valuable—and, in many cases, using science to provide it. In efforts to please customers and empower crew, airlines often explore many options. For example, when Singapore Airlines purchases a new aircraft model, says vice president of product innovation TaiLu Chew, “Sometimes, we look at more than 200 options to optimize our cabin space while maintaining the comfort of our passengers and ease of cabin crew’s in-flight operations.”

Today, airlines are pulling out all the stops to make travelers’ flights become part of their holiday, rather than a means to get there. Envision luxurious first-class suites, more stimulating in-flight entertainment, refined cuisine and refreshing cabin pressure.

Comfort for All

Comfort for All Does this sound almost too good to be true? Well, it isn’t. Many of these advances are already being implemented in their early stages. For example, Etihad A380’s The Residence—made by France-based Airbus—includes a three-room suite with a living room, separate bedroom and spa-like bathroom, along with a butler and gourmet chef. In these spaces, doors are raised in hallways for a more architectural feel, room layouts have been carefully considered to provide optimal airflow and the staple overhead bin has been replaced with modern cubbies discreetly tucked under media centers.

The fine-dining set could also see some welcome—and surprisingly science-based—improvements on flights.

While first class is getting an upgrade on many planes, the “Bed In The Sky” concept, debuted by British Airways in 1996, is percolating down from super first class and first class to astandard business-class offering. Airlines are also focusing on premium economy-class designs, with options such as seats that can remain reclined during takeoff and landing, sections where a family or group traveling together can face each other and aisle access for more passengers. As the industry works to bring more value to the back sections of the plane, travelers can also expect workstation-like pods constructed with walls and surfaces made of super-light, 3-D printed materials for travelers hoping to remain plugged in.

If all goes as planned, wireless technologies will take off, enabling passengers to remain the same “wired junkies” in the air as they are on the ground, according to Greenberg. Qantas, for example, recently partnered with Samsung to try virtual-reality headsets on select A380 flights with first-class travelers. The airline will offer immersive 3-D films that showcase select Qantas destinations and 3-D Hollywood blockbusters. “Whether the user wants a virtual tour of our new Los Angeles First Lounge or to experience an A380 landing from the tarmac, this technology gives us a completely new way to connect with our customers,” says Olivia Wirth, from Qantas marketing and corporate affairs.

Extra Advanced Tomorrow

Airlines are also experimenting with ways to transform the basic video systems, first installed in the back of travelers’ seats in 1988, into high-definition, ultra-thin touchscreens that serve as a hub for interpersonal communication, boasting high-speed Wi-Fi, e-readers, foreign language–instructional videos and the ability for screens to sync with travelers’ personal electronics and wearable technology. Singapore Airlines already provides e-readers to travelers in every seat on the aircraft. On some aircraft of the future, 3-D printed structures could double as interactive smart-surfaces, offering a flight map, lighting control, climate control, communications and social networking displays, according to Dryburgh.

The fine-dining set could also see some welcome—and surprisingly science-based—improvements on flights. British Airways, for example, has been studying the science of altitude and low humidity’s impact on taste and has designed a “Height Cuisine” menu that is naturally high in umami, identified in Japan and known as the fifth taste after sweet, salty, bitter and sour. Apparently, foods high in umami are less impacted by altitude changes. Over at Qantas, Sommeliers in the Sky—cabin crew who have been formally trained in wine service—help pair the right wine with passengers’ meal choices. “We know that the altitude and low humidity in the cabin tends to accentuate a wine’s acidity, alcohol and tannins whilst dulling a wine’s aroma,” says a Qantas spokesperson, adding that they try to counteract this by selecting fruitier and semi-mature wines.

When it comes to an aircraft’s atmosphere, Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner is paving the way with moister, cleaner air at cabin pressure found at 6,000 feet rather than the typical 8,000 feet. This allows more oxygen to be absorbed into passengers’ blood to help reduce dehydration and headaches, ultimately diminishing the effects of jet lag. Complement this with LED mood lighting that is brightened or dimmed when crossing certain time zones and larger windows, and passengers are more likely to feel rejuvenated upon landing. “The 787 Dreamliner has turned the interior atmosphere of the plane into a refreshing experience, making a huge difference in how you feel when you get off that plane,” Greenberg says.

As the airline industry is demonstrating, science and a focus on comfort can come together to enhance every passenger’s experience. In the airline industry, the sky is, indeed, the limit.

Data Points: Flights Fantastic Climb

The passenger traffic from 2013 to 2014 grew in every region

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