How Airlines Can Make Flying More Comfortable

Courtesy of AirNZ

In the dream worldof futuristic airplane design, you watch the stars all around you through a transparent fuselage. High above the clouds, the plane's miraculous bionic materials allow you at last to escape the thought that you're trapped in a big metal tube crammed full of people who can't wait to get back down on the ground. You never have the unsettling sensation—a feeling that can creep up on even the most seasoned traveler—that the cabin is closing in like a vise.

Airbus recently put out just such a fanciful picture in anticipation of the Paris Air Show that opened last week. Those of us who live another 40 years may yet fly in it for real. Or not. Most of these "planes of the future" never materialize.

But down in New Zealand, where just about every flight to anywhere else is a long haul, executives at the country's national airline decided they just couldn't wait any longer for some sort of breakthrough. And the lessons they learned exploring the inner space of airplanes could have an impact on the way all of us fly.

The adventure began when Air New Zealand decided to buy a fleet of 787 Dreamliners, the midsize, long-range, fuel-efficient, state-of-the-art future of the Boeing line. But even before the plane's long production delays (it was supposed to be in service in 2008; the first commercial flights are now scheduled for later this year), Air New Zealand executives got an uneasy feeling about the way things were going.

The 787's interior architecture was appealing enough. The new design for the overhead compartments allowed a more spacious ceiling; the mood lighting created a certain sense of the sky (right down to LED stars if you wanted them); the bigger windows darkened or cleared electronically, and were placed high enough so passengers could see outside no matter where they were seated. So far, so good. But the layout options for seats, galleys, toilets, and everything else vital to a passenger's comfort struck the Kiwis as same old same old—if not older.

"So," explains Jodi Williams, head of Air New Zealand's international marketing and a manager on the interior-design project, "we decided to do it ourselves." There was just one problem, she says: "We didn't really have a huge amount of experience." In fact, for all the flying the project members had done, they had no idea how to build the inside of a plane.

In collaboration with Ideo, a research and concept company in Palo Alto, California, the New Zealand team studied their passengers' desires, psychologies, and personalities. Nothing makes the tube seem tighter on a long flight than a seatmate with a clashing sense of personal space. The team discovered that about 10 percent of their customers were "positivists," fidgety and excited but highly involved in the flight and the romance of travel. About 17 percent were "cocooners," who can entertain themselves, want to zone out, and, according to the PowerPoint presentation of the Ideo findings, "possibly snigger at positivists." Another 18 percent were categorized as "disengaged," interested only in getting from point A to point B and determined meanwhile to keep to themselves. Then you had the "territorialists," who represented slightly more than a quarter of the airline's passengers. Mostly veteran fliers, they knew exactly what their "space entitlements" were, and they expected damn good service. And finally the biggest group, almost 30 percent, were "socialites," highly involved in the flight and with those around them. You can see the potential for bad chemistry. You've probably experienced it.

One solution for the problem has been developed by the industry trendsetter Emirates, which has equipped its enormous Airbus A380 business class with what might be called cubicles. They start out feeling like the sleeping compartments in old Pullman train cars, but wind up feeling like home—maybe better—with a huge television screen, a comfortable bed, and a refreshment center. They're more than satisfactory for the cocooners, the disengaged, and the territorialists—some 60 percent of the passengers, all told. And for the others who want to wander around, enthuse and socialize, there's a stand-up bar at the back of the section with a mixologist ready to shake or stir martinis all night long.

The trouble is that on anything less than a superjumbo jet the cubicles make a cabin too crowded, and the tube starts to close in again. "The seat tries to do too much," says Jenny Ruegamer, creative director for interior design at Seattle-based Teague, which works closely with Boeing. The key, she says, is to balance the overall experience inside the cabin, which should feel as spacious as possible, with the more intimate space of the seats themselves. Pods may not be the answer, but, then again, neither is the thing Ruegamer calls the "dental chair" that you still find on many planes.

As a practical matter, says Williams, Air New Zealand decided it needed a full-scale mockup of a midsize cabin to evaluate its designs. But such replicas don't normally exist outside Boeing's home turf in Washington state. So Air New Zealand enlisted the help of Auckland boatbuilders whose primary occupation is to create the racing craft that sail for New Zealand in the America's Cup. The shipwrights put the whole thing together in a big unmarked warehouse near the port.

Working in secret, Air New Zealand tried out lots of concepts on paper and on computers. But the boatbuilders also put together a lot of experimental airline furniture, and staffers and actors were brought in to try out each concept. Bunk-bed variations sounded like a great idea until people climbed awkwardly in and out of them. "Vertical seating"—standing passengers, that is—looked good only on a theoretical bottom line.

This spring the results of all this research finally went into service. The first-class cabin, or Business Premier, wasn't especially novel. For those passengers, Air New Zealand basically adapted the beds and the herringbone floor plan that were pioneered by Virgin Atlantic.

The Kiwis' more original ideas become apparent in Premium Economy, which you or I would call business class. There the socialites and positivists can choose seats in the aircraft's center "inner space" that's configured to let people talk to each other. Along the windows, however, the seats are staggered to accommodate the cocooners, the disengaged, and the territorialists.

But the most original addition to the Air New Zealand cabin is actually in the economy section, where the seats are constructed so the bottom unfolds into a large flat "couch" stretching from aisle to window: a space for a family to let one or two kids play, or for a couple to stretch out. The appearance isn't exactly elegant. It has a little bit of the improvisational feel of a bed in an old Volkswagen camper bus. But for anyone facing a long haul across the Pacific with kids, the very best thing about the "sky couch" is that it's here and it's now.