The mid-twentieth century is sometimes referred to as the golden age of flying. Air travel was an event, where – depending on the airline – planes had piano bars, in-flight sommeliers, and waiters in white suits who dished out caviar. Now, airlines are ditching free food altogether and nightmarish diagrams of cabins where passengers are packed in like sardines don’t bode well for the future of air travel.
But air cabin designers aren’t the bad guys, argues David Kondo, the manager of cabin interior development at Finnair. He insists they’re up not only against budgets, but also the laws of physics when it comes to making air travel pleasant for passengers.
Kondo has been working in the travel industry for seven years. Now based in Helsinki, he was born in Japan and grew up in Canada and Australia, meaning he was a frequent flyer when he was still in school. “I often joke I was raised on a Boeing 747-200,” he says. At Finnair, he’s introduced innovations including lighting that supposedly eases jet lag and lie-flat business-class seats.
But even if you’re stuck in the cheap seats at the back, take heart: Kondo reckons the golden era of air travel is yet to come. Part of that will see the space above our heads and beneath our feet being used more efficiently; you can also expect technological upgrades, he says. And if you don’t believe him, remember that it really wasn’t that long ago that we were all watching films on a screen at the front of the cabin.
“Imagine boarding a plane and the seat recognising who you are and remembering exactly how you like to sit, in what configuration, and setting up your entertainment playlist based on your personal preferences and what you were watching at home before you came to the airport,” he says.
Not that Kondo wants us all to be attached to the world below. Although airlines are starting to roll out in-flight wi-fi, he says his favourite aspect of flying is being cut off from the digital world and having time to eat, read, and watch films uninterrupted. His ideal plane wouldn’t isolate us from other passengers; it would give us more options for socialising. A passenger could then choose between shutting themselves off, or starting their holiday early at the sky bar.
“In a dream world, each passenger would have their own mini cabin, like a small hotel suite,” explains Kondo. “You would have different sizes and configurations to cater to different passengers – larger cabins for families, for example. The cabin would have everything you need, but there would be different social, lounge and dining areas available as well. It would be somewhat similar to what luxury rail or cruising is like.”
We’re still pretty far away from an Orient Express-style experience in the sky. Before Kondo and his peers can work their magic, aircraft manufacturers need to sort out the engineering complexity of getting all that gear into the air. And yet he’s not the only one with such high hopes. Anita Hawthorne, general manager of customer experience for Air New Zealand (ANZ), has a similar vision of the planes of the future. The digital revolution will “create personalised space for customers”, she says. And ANZ is already toying with innovation.
“We recently experimented with virtual reality headsets at our 75th anniversary exhibition,” she told The Independent. “Members of the public had the opportunity to sit inside an aircraft cabin mock-up and wear a virtual reality headset to see what the future in-flight experience might look like.” She remains tight-lipped as to what that might include, but points out that ANZ is already using biometric bag-drop technology, which has allowed customers in several premium lounges to order coffee via a mobile app, and has developed a tech-embedded wristband for children flying solo, allowing parents to track their kids’ journeys.
ANZ looked into bunk beds and pods when it developed its Skycouch (a row of economy seats which turns into a bed for two) in 2010, she says, but they were too heavy. For her, the ultimate cabin would allow travellers to act exactly as they would on the ground – working, sleeping and being entertained in the sky. But because it takes so long to develop a new product, airlines take about five years to introduce any new innovations.
“The most annoying part I would say is all the limitations you face in designing a cabin, though part of the fun is working in such a constrained environment,” agrees Kondo. “The materials and design you choose are subject to stringent flammability and toxicity requirements and have to endure all sorts of extreme conditions like fluctuations in pressure, temperature and movement. It also needs to be extremely durable.”
Although we may lament sardine-style seating in economy, Kondo says you can thank regulations and legislation that it’s not worse. And anyway, he is swift to point out that those golden-age photos you’re weeping over are probably from business class. In comparison, economy seats from 50 years ago weren’t that different. “Yes it’s slimmed up a bit but it’s not drastically different,” he argues.
And he believes seats will never get smaller than 29 inches. “We humans are not getting any smaller generally, so there comes a point where you physically cannot fit into the seat any longer. That’s obviously quite problematic.”
In the nearer future, Kondo just hopes to get a decent coffee on a plane and comfier seats.
“Yes, we have espresso machines but it just doesn’t taste the same as what you’d get at your favourite café,” says Kondo. “I think it has a lot to do with the fact that you physically can’t get water hot enough, as the boiling point at altitude in a cabin is about 80-85 degrees, and our taste buds also change at altitude.
“I also think we have a long way to go in economy class and think there is plenty of room to really fine-tune the ergonomics and provide greater comfort to passengers. For example in headrest design, leg support, back and lumbar adjustment.”
On the whole, despite the nostalgia stoked by grainy images of planes from the Fifties where passengers had sofa-style seating and personal butlers, in reality we already have a lot to be thankful for, he argues.
“Generally, passengers have never had it better and also flying has never been more accessible. 50 years ago, flying was reserved for the extremely wealthy. Today, flying is for everybody.”
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