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13 min read

COMFORT AND CARE:

How Airlines Can Improve the Passenger Experience

Beyond cabin comfort, there are a lot of things that happen between flight check-in and deplaning that can impact a passenger’s enjoyment of a flight.

Unfortunately, many of those things are often unpredictable and can’t be controlled by the passenger, the crew or the airline.

Flight delays, too-full overhead compartments, screaming babies, cramped legs, noisy or even unruly seat neighbors — the list goes on. But airlines are starting to introduce new and experimental methods of making the increasingly stressful experience of flying a little more zen. Here’s how they’re doing it.

“Light therapy can be useful in helping people more quickly adjust their body clock to the new destination time zone.” — Gary Kaplan, Manager for Product Marketing at Panasonic

Leveraging Existing Assets

Creating a more relaxing in-cabin atmosphere doesn’t have to come at an exorbitant cost. Sometimes it’s the little things that matter most — and often, those little things can be incorporated into existing airline assets.

British Airways, for example, made a seven-hour-long video shot from the front of a Norwegian train to inaugurate its IFE system’s Slow TV channel in 2014. Other videos on the platform include a two-hour-long canal boat trip, a walk through the park, bird feeding and watching someone knit. The airline said the Slow TV programming had a “hypnotic” or meditative effect, affording passengers the opportunity to tune in and zone out.

The airline’s Art in the Air programming, meanwhile, offers passengers visual content such as a photographic tour of Scotland’s “green highlands, sharp coastlines and vast lowlands,” as well as a photo gallery of photos of Earth seen from Space, according to its media-relations team.

Two years after its Slow TV debuted, British Airways began airing a hypnotherapy health channel on its High Life inflight entertainment system featuring videos by hypnotherapist Mark Bowden. The airline offered hypnosis videos to stop smoking, stop drinking, lose weight or eat more fruits and veggies. Additionally, in October the airline will relaunch its Paws and Relax programming — a channel dedicated to adorable animals.

Elsewhere, Australian airline Qantas offers some basic health and wellness content on its website, as well as a video of some simple in-seat stretching exercises to help promote passenger comfort.

Meanwhile, some airlines are partnering with meditation app-maker Headspace to help passengers relax with guided meditation. Headspace says it now reaches 750 million passengers a year through its partnerships with Air Canada, Cathay Pacific, Virgin Atlantic, United, Delta, JetBlue and British Airways. (Its first airline partner was with Virgin, in 2011.) “With my nervous flying habits, the Headspace podcasts on board are the only things that get me through the flight,” reads one passenger testimonial.

Other apps are making inroads on IFE systems. Music-streaming service Spotify, for instance, is offered for free on Virgin and Qantas flights. And Qantas announced in early 2017 that it would also begin offering passengers free Netflix access, too. Allowing passengers to try out a new service, or relax with a creature comfort from home, is an ingenious way to put travelers at ease and improve the passenger experience.

Creating More Comfortable Spaces

Airlines looking to go beyond IFE content have no shortage of opportunities to do so, from creating a more luxurious seating design aesthetic, to providing a more comfortable and restful sleep.

For instance, active noise control — which can reduce ambient aircraft noises without the need for headphones — can help passengers get some quality shuteye. Meanwhile, in-seat lighting can lend the aircraft a sleeker cabin look while also helping passengers to fight jet lag by simulating the destination time zone.

“Light therapy can be useful in helping people more quickly adjust their body clock to the new destination time zone,” says Gary Kaplan, a Manager for Product Marketing at Panasonic. “The sleep-wake lighting can be automatically cycled to help passengers fall asleep faster and better.” Advancements in LED technology have also permitted airlines to experiment more easily with customizable lighting.

Kaplan notes that many of the technologies Panasonic Avionics extends to its airline customers — such as the short-throw projectors that enable airlines to project starry skies, sunsets, sunrises and other time-of-day lighting onto the cabin ceiling — are often developed elsewhere within the Panasonic Corporation umbrella and modified to suit the aviation biz. This relationship gives the avionics subsidiary a significant head start when it comes to adapting new technologies to the inflight experience.

Seating design, meanwhile, is a major focus when it comes to passenger comfort. Lie-flat seats and privacy pods in Business class are great inventions — but what about the people in the back of the plane? Economy passengers have seen their seat width and pitch dwindle in recent years, contributing to their overall displeasure with traveling.

London creative design agency Factorydesign, which specializes in aircraft interiors, was lauded in 2015 for its Twister Seat prototype. ” The Twister Seat is ergonomically designed around the structure and movement of the human spine. The seat twists side to side and forward to back, mimicking the natural body movements of the rib cage,” wrote APEX in 2016.

As airlines continue to search to reduce weight onboard flights, designing less bulky and more ergonomic seating will become a business imperative. Recaro’s CL3710 is a good example of this; weighing in at 12 kilograms, the Economy-class seat has an “ergonomic, six-way adjustable headrest with an extremely wide height adjustment range to easily accommodate passengers of different heights,” the manufacturer wrote. “It also provides optimized neck support that can be tipped horizontally.” At the same time, the seat model features all the built-in IFE controls, USB sockets, a power supply and a handset.

The Recaro CL3710 is now the seat of choice for airlines such as Delta, Shandong and Avianca. This success proves that an Economy seat can be lightweight and comfortable and serve both airlines’ and passengers’ needs.

The new Stagger Seat, or S2, is also a modern, ergonomic seating alternative for Economy. Designed in partnership between Molon Labe, BMW’s Designworks and Panasonic Avionics, the S2 was shortlisted in 2017 for the Crystal Cabins Awards. This new Economy seat design offsets the middle seat, while also making it three inches wider, to give passengers more breathing room. The S2’s middle seat also comes with an immersive 18-inch seat-back screen — the largest in the industry — while the outer seats have 16-inch monitors. No more rows of empty middle seats!

Other advancements being made to improve the passenger experience include better air quality and antimicrobial UV lighting to help prevent inflight contagion.

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The Future of Inflight Comfort

While it may be difficult to predict the future, there are some developments and trends that are indicative of what may come next in passenger health and wellness.

For example, SAS Scandinavian Airlines introduced a stretch bar back in 2002 to let passengers stretch their backs while onboard. And on airlines operating out of China and Japan (All Nippon Airways, Shenzhen Airlines, China Southern, etc.) flight attendants and/or inflight videos guide passengers through a series of stretching exercises. A number of airlines (such as Emirates) also provide written instructions on their websites of how to get in a mini-workout at 39,000 feet.

We could see this trend extend to a greater number of airlines in the coming years. It’s not that far of a stretch; airlines, cabin designers, and OEMs are already dreaming up ways of integrating more health and wellness capabilities to the cabin. Transpose is the name of an Airbus project aimed at rethinking cabin design. A Wired article from early 2017 detailed the modular designs the project is putting forward: “[they tested] a conceptual modular cabin that offers a bevy of inflight activities: a facial over here, a latte over there, a spin class up front.”

Or, in Airbus’ own words: “The project focuses on giving airlines the ability to expand and enhance the breadth of experiences they can offer their passengers by modularizing the aircraft interior. The project will bring experiences such as cafes, spas and gyms to commercial airline passengers, while offering time and cost advantages associated with the manufacturing because it leverages an existing modified freighter variant of a commercial aircraft.”

In truth, it’s unlikely most commercial airlines will use their razor-thin margins to adopt such whimsical inventions, Teague principal brand strategist Devin Liddell told CNBC earlier this year. “But maybe you could have some seats that are mainly for takeoff and landing, and then allow passengers to move around the airplane in a different way,” he told CNBC. “Or explore having whole cabins built around passengers with like-minded interests. People may pay more for that.”

And, even if commercial airlines don’t buy in, workout facilities could eventually become a norm on private aircraft, such as the planes used to escort sports teams — such as the plane that Russian OEM Sukhoi made for Sochi Olympians in 2014.

Something that could be more realistic for airlines to implement would be to utilize the seat-back screen to act as a communication device, allowing for seat-to-seat calling and for passenger-to-crew calls (or vice versa). This could help reduce crew fatigue while also improving service efficiency.

The seat-back screen could also be paired with software and a camera to enable the monitoring of certain passengers for mood, stress and other potential inflight emotions and problems. For instance, crew — and possibly even an on-the-ground guardian — could check on an unaccompanied minor. Someone with a major fear of flying, or someone with mobility issues or a disability, could be served with an extra level of personalized care without the attention coming off as an uncomfortable intrusion.

Putting It Into Practice

Some of the examples in this article are definitely cost-prohibitive for commercial airlines at the moment, but that doesn’t mean improved passenger health, wellness and comfort are out of airlines’ hands.

App partnerships, specialized IFE programming, healthier food options, better air quality and lighting and so on are tangible and affordable ways that airlines can positively impact the passenger experience, and therefore inspire greater customer loyalty.

Of course, there’s always more work to do when it comes to creating a better inflight environment. In its 2016 Global Passenger Survey, IATA identified a few key areas that passengers thought could be better:

• More notifications (especially via SMS): Flight status and changes; wait times for border-control and security and for baggage delivery.
• Baggage tags: Either electronic baggage tags, or print-at-home tags, as well as the ability to track luggage.
• Better pre-flight customer service: More frequent and prompt communication from airline staff during flight disruptions and delays.

These items don’t necessarily speak to the inflight experience, but they would give passengers greater peace of mind — and when it comes to making travel less stressful, that counts for a lot.

Panasonic Avionics
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