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NOW BOARDING

Technology can improve the experience of flying—even for those of us at the back of the plane

AP Photo/Ted S. Warren,
Soaring into the future?
By Natasha Frost
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

We don’t like the dry air. We don’t like the food (and we especially don’t like it when it runs out, and we don’t get to choose). We don’t like the grubby toilets. We don’t like queueing to get on (or off). We don’t like the plane’s roar as we’re trying to sleep. We don’t like having to fight for the overhead cabins. We don’t like the intermittent wifi. We don’t like the bumps of unexpected turbulence. We don’t like the chairs. We definitely don’t like how much all this ignominy and discomfort costs.

All told, we mostly just… don’t like flying. And we especially don’t like it in cattle class, elbow-to-elbow, fighting for every inch of armrest or glint of sunlight.

But there are technological fixes for almost all of these micro-irritations. And though not all of them make economic sense for us schlubs at the back, a significant number are likely to be rolled out cabin-wide in the years to come. Some will be so slight that we scarcely notice them; others, like functional wi-fi, will be as transformative as the in-flight entertainment systems we now dismiss as commonplace.

The Internet of Things at 30,000 feet

The smart cabin is the future —and, increasingly, the present. Companies such as Airbus and Diehl Aerospace have developed “connected” cabins, where almost every element is part of a vast, intelligent network, communicating with one another almost instantaneously and generating huge repositories of data in the process.

For passengers, this will affect what they get to eat, where they place their bags, and how they feel in their seats. Even going to the bathroom may change. A “smart” lavatory should be able to let you check whether it is occupied without leaving your seat. If it is, you could book your slot in a digital queue, and wait your turn from your seat. (For the crew, sensors inside can alert them when it needs a quick seeing-to, or when toilet paper and hand soap supplies are running low.) There’s even talk from Diehl Aerospace, a German technology company, of a voice-activated lavatory.

Connected overhead cabins mean late-boarders don’t have to open each bin to find room for their carryon. These could even be booked ahead of time, so you’ll know that some scoundrel won’t muscle in on the slot over your seat. (But you’ll probably have to pay for the privilege.) And while the smart cabins can’t improve the quality of the food, they can at least make it more likely that you’ll get what you want, with the potential for remote or even pre-booking of meals. Add to that the data generated by this system—data that might, for instance, say that consumers will pay more for wine than beer or flyers out of California eat less meat—and it becomes a little easier to know what people actually want. For airlines, this reduces wastage, helping to drive down costs. Whether they’ll be passed on to the customer remains to be seen.

Airbus’ system, which is currently being tested on A350-900 Flight Lab aircraft, includes an impressively connected iSeat, in the upper classes. Here, customers can work out exactly what reclining configuration suits them best, then magically replicate it on every flight they board, using their own mobile device.

Diehl, meanwhile, hopes to have its connected cabin ready to go in about two years. It is not, perhaps, the best time for it: Arlines tend not to invest in their interiors during times of scarcity. For the last couple of years, bull markets and relatively low oil prices have kept them in the black, making it easier to afford expensive retrofits. With fears of a slowdown mounting, expensive smart cabin renovations may be a hard sell. Diehl’s Helge Sachs, who runs product innovation for the company, sees it differently. “We do not expect the airlines to pay for this,” he says. Instead, by allowing dynamic ads to pass over LED displays on the cabin’s walls or ceilings, airlines could generate ancillary revenue that could be shared with Diehl, he says. At the moment, cabin crew spend a significant amount of time double-checking locks, doors, lavatories, and almost everything else. By doing this automatically, the system might also relieve cabin crew of some of their work, helping to drive down labor costs.

Airbus
LED lighting, as seen in this Airbus product photo, could also display advertising.

For travelers, the Internet of Things could grease the sticky wheels of boarding long before they make it to the gate. Beacon technology, where signal-emitting devices communicate with passing cellphones, would allow airports to send you push alerts telling you everything from how long the security or gate line is to what the daily sandwich special is at that café across the corridor. The implications for this technology are wide: It could include a chip that helps airport crew find the missing ground service equipment vehicle that would otherwise leave you sitting on the plane for an extra 30 minutes. Or a worn-out seat that tells the airline it needs to be replaced and external sensors to help pilots avoid turbulence or make the most of weather conditions to trim extra time off your journey.

Some of these innovations are already in place. When you check a bag with the US carrier Delta, for instance, it’s tracked along its journey using radio frequency identification baggage tracking technology. For the customer, that means push notifications on the mobile app that lets you know your treasured suitcase is safely stowed in the helm, or in the process of making its way back to you. It also makes it easier to track down, if it isn’t where you expect it to be.

Now connecting

Airlines want to offer wifi. Customers want to have wifi, preferably for free. The problem, so far, has been in rolling out systems that work even when every passenger on board is live-streaming the NFL or FIFA game happening on the ground below.

The solution for this will be outside of the plane—and even the atmosphere—with high-powered satellites. These connect to planes via low-profile (and thus low drag) antennae, placed on top of the plane. In the early days of in-flight wifi, many airlines used air-to-ground systems which send data down to the cell towers below. It doesn’t work over oceans, of course, and is limited by the short geographic range of the towers.

Since 2015, more and more of these satellites have been put into orbit. Not only do they function over a greater area, they also permit much faster connection speeds. The more there are, the easier it will be for airlines to give people the wifi what they want and increasingly expect. For now, the problem is scaling. Bandwidth in the sky is an expensive resource, which must be leased by companies such as Gogo: at the moment, data throttling by airlines and their suppliers means customers can very quickly hit a wall after as little as an hour.

Still more cutting edge, however, is the inflight LiFi technology under development from French companies Latécoère and Ubisoft. Light fidelity—its full name—uses a network of multiple LED lights to transmit data, as opposed to wifi’s electromagnetic waves. A signal on a LiFi-enabled device interprets imperceptible changes in light intensity as data. Up to 100 faster than wifi, LiFi is already undergoing trials on certain Air France planes.

Feeling surprisingly fresh

Even for those at the front of the plane, it’s not unusual to emerge from a flight bleary-eyed, exhausted, dry-mouthed, and generally a husk of a human. For this, you can blame the 12% humidity air that circulates and recirculates around the cabin. Towards the nose of the plane, where there are fewer passengers to increase humidity, it’s drier still, with levels as low as 5% in first class or 1% in the cockpit. The Sahara desert, at about 25% humidity, is positively sultry in comparison.

The air you breathe in the cabin is made up of the carbon dioxide-heavy stuff already flowing about the cabin, cut with very cold, very dry air pumped in from outside. The result is reasonably clean—HEPA filters do a very good job at nixing any nasties—but bad news for your skin, your mucus membranes, and your body more generally, which prefers a much moister clime. (It also makes it much harder to taste and smell, ripping any flavor out of often already lackluster food.) Separately, oxygen levels comparable to being 8,000 feet above sea level can cause sluggishness and fatigue. These probably won’t change, unless FAA regulations on cabin air pressure become more stringent.

Flyers have mostly accepted this desiccation as the price we pay to be up in the air. But there is a solution of sorts: inflight humidifiers, which issue a light mist through the cabin, minimizing dehydration and, in turn, jet lag.

Some humidifiers are reportedly in the offing in premium class cabins on certain Lufthansa or China Southern Airlines aircrafts, but they’ve mostly been deemed too expensive to roll out more widely. The costly element here isn’t just the tech, but the additional weight of enough sloshing water on board to keep the humidifier running.

HumBay, a Washington-based startup founded by former Boeing engineers, is one of the only companies betting big on the future of this underused technology. Here, the hope is that airlines catering to fussy passengers will find a way to justify the expense: HumBay’s own unit costs an eye-watering $45,000, though its ability to recycle water does dry up some of the weight-related costs. The company forecasts sales of more than 1,800 humidifying units by 2023, mostly for use in drier, and more expensive, business- and first-class cabins. (You would need multiple humidifiers to outfit an entire plane.)

Panasonic, meanwhile, is focusing on other ways to make customers feel better when they fly. For those in economy class, that might be a tailored program that tells you when to rest and when to eat, to cut down on the impact of jet lag before you land. (The company has paired with Etihad to develop a related app.)  Panasonic’s new business class seats also include a noise-cancelling function built into the seat’s cushioning material, to make the relentless whirr of a droning engine a little bit more peaceful.

“Pie in the sky?”

These innovations, even as they might improve the in-cabin experience, are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what aviation companies really want to achieve. Modular planes, where entire sections can be swapped out or moved around, are often touted as the next chapter for aircrafts. For passengers, this might mean pre-selecting a plane with a dining area or an inflight pedicure service. Airbus’ much-acclaimed Transpose system, with the glittering promise of “coffee shops to co-working spaces, to day cares and spas, or even a cycling studio,” was shuttered last year. If this is the future of flight, it’s an exciting one—though it may be decades, rather than years, away.

Something similar is already in place for cargo crafts. Practically speaking, however, no one has yet managed to make them work in passenger jets, much less nail down elusive FAA regulatory approval, which can take more than five years. Even then, it’s a system more likely to cater to high-end passengers, with prices starting at a premium economy level. Ordinary folk, meanwhile, may have to make do with less space-intensive follies: VR headsets, much-touted customized entertainment systems’ or simply refreshing and re-refreshing the flight tracker.