Here’s What Makes Flying Suck, and How Designers Would Fix It
Ah, flying. It’s been said before, and we’ll say it again: it’s an expensive, stressful, cramped, and utterly miserable ordeal. Doubly so, this time of year. And with U.S. airport security on high alert, you can bet air travel will be especially frustrating this holiday season.
Many of the biggest frustrations are design and engineering problems. Airlines operate on small margins, with an average profit of just $8.27 per passenger, so they must cram as many people onto as few planes as possible while maximizing the efficiency of each flight, usually by trimming weight from the aircraft to save fuel. Smaller lavatories, narrower seats, and dwindling amenities achieve these goals, but present no end of challenges to designers who’d like to make flying more pleasant. We asked a handful of designers how they would improve the experience, given free rein to do anything they like, regardless of cost or practicality.
Joe Gebbia, Airbnb co-founder
Gebbia—Airbnb co-founder, designer, and frequent flyer—says he’d create private spaces designated for zenning out mid-flight: “I’d upgrade the airplane interior to include a separated meditation or yoga area. Inside the space, replace the carpet with tatami mat, the scent of my neighbor’s body odor with incense, and the blaring intercom interruptions about credit card offers with a well-tuned mandolin. I’d forgo paying for a movie to pay for access to a quiet place for mindfulness. The airline would differentiate itself, and leave those who utilize it happier and healthier.”
Paul Priestman, design director of PriestmanGoode
PriestmanGoode specializes in transportation design. It focuses on making traveling more comfortable (reimagined carry-on storage bins for Embraer Air) and more efficient (new subway trains for the London Underground). Priestman would give passengers a view. “We’d like moonroofs! It would be great to lie back and look at the stars at night, or have the cabin flooded with sunlight during the day,” he says. “It would make the interior feel more natural and spacious, and link the passenger with the whole journey. And it’s achievable from an engineering point of view.”
Avalon Hu, interaction designer at Ustwo
“Because airline staff has little turnaround time between flights, tray tables have become one of the dirtiest spots in airplanes,” she says. “I’m constantly wondering: why not make them detachable—or even disposable—so that the airline staff doesn’t need to worry about not having enough time to clean? It would save us from the surprise of finding mysterious coffee marks or smashed cookie crumbles. Let’s picture a future like this: a stack of clean tray tables is waiting for you to pick up on the way to board, if you need one. Once you locate your seat, with two simple clicks, your tray table is all set on the back of the seat in front of you. It can’t be any simpler than changing a toilet paper roll at home. When you arrive at the destination, the airline staff will collect your tray table before landing, and dispose them or send them to be cleaned.
“Besides being hygienic, these detachable tray tables give airlines the potential to refresh their in-cabin visual experience with some creativity. Airlines can quickly update the design of the tray table for functional or aesthetic reasons, to celebrate a holiday or a promotion, or to simply open up this canvas for potential sponsorship as an additional fund to maintain those tray tables.”
Anne-Rachel Schiffmann, senior interior architect at Snøhetta
“I don’t want to constantly fight over the armrest,” says Schiffmann, who recently led the design of French Laundry’s updated restaurant in California’s Napa Valley. She suggests airlines adopt vertical seat and arm rest dividers—and even sketched one out for us.
Her drawing shows a simple divider that would act as a small privacy screen between passengers in coach. “I’m thinking of a very simple contraption, at the dividing armrest in economy class, that’s either telescoping up from the armrest, or that slides up into position like a tablet arm. Clearly people want that! It needs to be implemented.”
Jeff Salazar, VP of design at Lunar
Lunar, recently aquired by consulting giant McKinsey, makes things like slick smart-thermostats and clever ice cream scoops. Salazar, who leads design at the San Francisco firm, wants “more design attention [being paid] to ‘humanizing’ the non-trivial essentials: seating, dining, and entertainment.” But he says it’s the beginning of the flying experience that’s in most dire need of a fix.
“For me, there’s always been something fundamentally wrong with the process that takes place just before the cabin doors are secured and the faux-entertainment or safety video has played for the umteenth time,” Salazar says. “The transition of going from customer-on-the-ground to passenger-in-the-air is a step in the process that continues to be sorely neglected. There’s ample opportunity to learn from and be inspired by some of the greats of customer experience to thoughtfully manage this often frustrating set of moments on a traveler’s journey. Once on board, we are expected to inch along down the aisle then rely on the kindness of strangers to help awkwardly hoist our carry-on into one of the few remaining odd-sized cubby holes above our heads. Why not just provide a seamless way to hand over, and receive back, your roller bag when exiting to avoid creating this bottleneck of a circus act?
“Iconic companies like Disney and Apple have dedicated their organizations to expertly crafting and weaving together the many micro-experiences of the physicality of space into truly magical moments. They anticipate our needs, from the trivial to the nuanced and complex. These brands simultaneously streamline and enhance our relationship to space and experience. It’s the most mundane of experiences that deserve the delight of design.”
Raymond Bessemer, senior interaction designer for Industry
Industry designs for people in motion: the Portland, Ore. studio has created campaigns for Nike and a smarter bicycle for city riders. Bessember’s idea for better travel, however, has to do with personalization and customization: “In travel, there is a shift and opportunity around catering to the individual,” he says. “We’re moving to personalized experiences. Long flights still attempt to keep everyone on the same schedule for eating and even sleeping, [even] though everyone is on a different program internally. It’s exciting to see examples of airlines letting passengers program their flight by scheduling the timing of food service, beverage preference, and whether to be woken up for certain reasons. In a category full of costs and confusion, little changes like this would make a big difference in elevating the entire experience.”
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