Whoever said that travel is about the
journey and not the destination hasn't sat in a cramped aeroplane seat
As anyone who has flown in
the last few years
knows, air travel lost its glamour when airlines began to penny-pinch by
cutting frills. But in recent months a number of international airlines have
started taking baby steps
in the other direction, using improvements in aircraft
construction to install
plusher seats and cosier interiors in some of their newer planes.
airlines have been slowly
but steadily putting into operation two next-generation aircraft -- Boeing's 787 Dreamliner
and the Airbus A350 -- both of which have shells made heavily of composite materials,
such as carbon-fibre reinforced plastic, instead of aluminium. The composite
materials are much lighter than traditional metal (though equally as sturdy),
enabling planes to be a little larger and thus more spacious while still consuming
the same amount of fuel. Engineering innovations have also given
designers more options when crafting the interiors, thanks to greater structural flexibility in the
placement of walls and barriers inside the cabins.
In Boeing’s 787, improved ventilation
systems have raised humidity levels about 10% compared to the aircraft of yesterday,
freeing passengers from dry eyes and mouths. The air pressure is also now closer
to what is normal in Denver, Colorado -- the mile-high city at 5,280ft
-- than the traditionally higher, and more mountaintop-like standard of 8,000ft above sea level, sparing fliers from the mild altitude sickness
that can be experienced when flying a long distance. The Airbus A350 will offer
similar improvements in humidity and air pressure.
Both models of aircraft have other
benefits, too. They were built to
be quieter, and seats can
theoretically be a little wider and provide more legroom due to the extra space.
Of course, just because it’s possible doesn’t mean it’s free. Airlines will likely charge extra for any seats with those
innovative theories into practice
In October 2011, All Nippon Airways (ANA) became the first
airline to put a Boeing 787 into service, and its fleet features the
largest windows of any commercial jet currently in the sky. In another improvement,
its LED lights cast a softer range of coloured cabin lights than traditional fluorescent
bulbs do. ANA's 787s also don't have shades on their windows – they’re tinted electronically to block the varying
levels of sunlight. By March 2013, ANA will have 20 Dreamliners in service on
domestic and international flights, making it the largest fleet of 787s in the
LAN Airlines is outfitting its soon-to-be-released
787s with a high, dome-shaped roof along the centre aisle
of its aircraft, which helps alleviate the cramped feeling of older planes. Overhead bins are also 30% more spacious than those on the
planes, allowing more room for bags.
Each 787 economy class seat has a power socket,
a USB port and a headphone jack that doesn’t require the purchase of a special headset.
Seats come with two cup holders, with one accessible even when the tray table
is up. Passengers also receive pillows and blankets printed in
bright, solid colours – little details, yes, but they add up to greater overall
ANA, Japan Airlines and Ethiopian Airlines will likely
put into operation their first A350s by mid-2014, industry experts say.
Bolder designs in business class
You don’t need a next-generation aeroplane
to redefine your aircraft interior, of course, and a few airlines are updating their
existing business class cabins with touches reminiscent of a boutique hotel.
In May, Virgin Atlantic updated its business class section,
Class Suite, for several of the models in its fleet, including the new Airbus
A330-200s, an aircraft with about 20% composite material. The section has a bar, described as the longest bar in the sky,
embedded with 1,000 Swarovski crystals, located in a separate area from
the passenger seats to allow about 15 people to sit on stools or stand while mingling.
Seats in the Upper Class Suite can be
extended fully flat into beds, with the longest transatlantic business class
seat in the sky – at 87 inches long. Plus, partitions between the seats are curved
semi-translucent plastic, which gets rid of the “coffin class” feel that some
airlines have and allows for more elbow room than is customary for
international business class sections.
In March, Hong Kong Airlines drew back the curtains on its new Airbus A330-200s, which
fly an all-business class service between London and Hong Kong. In the 82-seat
aircraft, seatbacks recline 155 to 180 degrees, depending on the price point.
Flights also have not one but two bars
serving Champagne, canapés and mixed drinks; cabins come with mood lighting, with
the colours changing in a way that helps reduce jetlag; and free wi-fi and
power ports are standard amenities at each seat.
Looking ahead to 2050
Future decades may bring even more enhancements to the flight experience.
Last week in London, Airbus unveiled
some of its latest concepts, including “a new approach to touching down”, where
technology would optimise landing positions with pinpoint accuracy and allow
planes to glide onto runways with their engines running in idle, leading to
less noise and less circling.
Previous ideas for Airbus
concept planes dealt directly with passenger comfort. Separate classes of
first, business and economy could be replaced by seats that would be
individually customised based on its price, with some passengers preferring
seats with high-tech game consoles and others looking for multi-seat areas to
conduct business meetings. The walls of the planes could be engineered to allow
panoramic, see-through views.
Perhaps most fanciful of all is
Airbus’s dream of the perfect aeroplane seat, which would “adapt for the perfect fit,
offering massage, drinks or vitamins as required; a gentle sea breeze or the
soft aroma of a pine forest wash over you; sound showers will ease you into the
perfect sleep, snug in the warm embrace of holographic shades, while the heat
given out from your body is unobtrusively collected to power the cabin
With luck, experimental improvements in
the in-flight experience might -- someday -- become industry standards, taking passenger contentment to
a higher plane.
Sean O’Neill is the travel tech columnist
for BBC Travel.
Correction: A previous version of this article mistated the year in which the first A350s would be put into operation. This has been fixed.