Flying Economy Class? Get Ready for Some Serious Upgrades

Economy class is going to be a lot more comfortable.

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 realization that you should have brought your own sandwiches. Flying, for many of us, has turned from a thrilling experience into a tiresome ordeal.

With the global air passenger numbers set to double to more than 6 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 BA’s economy cabin: contoured leather seats, accessorized 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 for attaching an iPad. BA’s short-haul revamp also includes mood lighting, powered by ecologically efficient light emitting diodes (LEDs).

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 well-being 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 underpinning it. 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 inbuilt limitations of aircraft cabins is the Holy Grail of the airline industry. Though psychological factors have a role in building the comfort perception, but the big challenge for airlines is simply how to maximize 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 have 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 class 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 Pneumatic Comfort System (PCS),  which lets passengers adjust the firmness of cushions.

The PCS cushions—which have been installed in some Lufthansa, Swiss, Austrian, jetBlue, and edelweiss planes—are lighter than standard airline cushions, and this weight-saving could be exploited to add further amenities.

Carry on Carrying On

The-Future-of-Flight-is-Here.-Get-Ready-For-an-UpgradeReader's Digest International EditionCabin 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 class. “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, because speedier stowage of “carry-on” luggage helps shave off 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 last October, and European airlines Air Europa and are set to follow.

Getting Connected

The-Future-of-Flight-is-Here.-Get-Ready-For-an-UpgradeReader's Digest International EditionAll 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 

The-Future-of-Flight-is-Here.-Get-Ready-For-an-UpgradeReader's Digest International EditionLinking 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 flashing colored lights to recreate the experience of the Aurora Borealis in the cabin.

The well-being effect of lighting isn’t the only benefit. LEDs last ten times longer than previous lighting technologies. The system can even be adjusted to cast a warm orange glow to make inflight meals look more appetizing.

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 well-being”, with notes of fruit, flowers and wood, and a touch of citrus.

What’s cooking?

The-Future-of-Flight-is-Here.-Get-Ready-For-an-UpgradeReader's Digest International EditionMealtimes 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 has to meet expectations. At altitude, cabin pressure reduces our senses of taste and smell by around 30%, so European carriers are using new approaches to making 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 airliner-compatible espresso machines, convection ovens, skillets 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.”

Carbon is Coming

The-Future-of-Flight-is-Here.-Get-Ready-For-an-UpgradeReader's Digest International EditionSo 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, or sharklets—those 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 improve the inflight experience by reducing cabin noise.

All of these features are made possible by 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, which 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 Airbus’s new A330neo.

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

The Human Factor

“Remember what it was like before Southwest Airlines? You didn’t have hostesses in hot pants” suggestively declares a blonde air hostess in the airline’s TV adverts of 1972. Some passengers may lament the disappearance of revealing crew attire, but today’s crew image is a little subtler—about assurance, personal service and a gentle sense of humor.

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 intel and use it to ask if you want your favorite drink,  as they address you and your companions by name.

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

There are some things that smart technology will never replace. On Jill and Jeremy Joseph’s flight back from Nice, the pilot intermittently related the goal tally of the Liverpool versus Sevilla match as the Europa League final progressed. In an age where 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”.

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

MORE: 13 Things Airlines Don’t Want to Tell You

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest International Edition