Have they all given up hope for the economy cabin??


The Passenger Experience Conference serves as something of an amuse bouche to this week’s Aircraft Interiors Expo. The Expo is a massive event; this year more than 800 exhibitors are showing their wares in seven buildings and the in-flight catering portion of the show was pushed across the street to auxiliary facilities. It is big and loud and crazy fun. Compared to that the PaxEx conference is a tiny, calm precursor. It allows for a bit of jet lag recovery and for slowly entering the fray. And, at least for me, a bit of disappointment this year.

The screens are a nice distraction from reality. But that's all they are - a distraction.
The screens are a nice distraction from reality. But that’s all they are – a distraction.

 

The show kicked off with the “Blue Sky Talks” session, a time to dream about what could happen to make travel wonderful again. And Richard Seymour was an engaging speaker with some fun stories to tell. But his message didn’t quite hit home. Or, more to the point, it got rather impressively derailed. Seymour recalled his experience flying on Concorde in 1997, nearly 20 years ago. And he did so in a nearly rhapsodic manner, almost as if he was in a trance remembering the amazingness of the trip. It was that “feeling” that he wanted to inspire the attendees to return to, an emotional reaction rather than a physical one. That house of cards came tumbling down at the end of the session when someone asked why he only mentioned the amazement of looking down at the curvature of the earth and not the fact that the windows were tiny. Why he focused on getting to choose what he wanted to drink on board while watching the mach counter tick up but ignored the spectacularly narrow seats (and he’s not a small guy; he quipped at one point that he doesn’t even bother trying to fit into economy seats anymore). Not surprisingly he had an answer. Unfortunately, it is one which does not portend a great future for the PaxEx world.

Distract your customers so they don’t notice the uncomfortable bits.

That’s not a direct quote, but it is clearly the message he was sending. Seymour waxed poetic about the beauty of looking down on the earth from above and railed on the AirShow product as being an outdated, boring view when it should be possible to put cameras on the plane to show what it really looks like outside, not just where you are on a map. And, of course, he’s correct that being able to see the beauty of earth is a wonderful facet of flying. I am a window seat guy for that very reason. But seeing what is happening below doesn’t solve the comfort issues. It doesn’t get more space for passengers or reduce the crunch of your knees when another traveler reclines into you.

Later in the show David Cleaves from frog design studios talked about the passenger experience from his perspective. Similar to Seymour he noted that customers typically don’t really know what they want. Or at least they don’t know how to express it. You can ask and people will say things are fine because they’ve been acclimated, even when it is a system or process which frustrates them terribly. That aspect of the presentations was interesting, but the conclusion drawn was also similar to Seymour’s: The way to solve the problem is to fortify the “bubble” passengers build around themselves through distractions rather than actually making the products any better.

There was a panel discussion focused on “Flexibility” of cabin interiors which was probably the most interesting of the sessions to me. Not surprisingly the group was universal in its agreement that the regulatory environment slows innovation; Inmarsat’s Leo Mondale noted that, at best, an in-flight entertainment system being installed is already two generations old by the time the first until is fitted on a plane. Common standards amongst the various industry players could help reduce the time to certify new systems but the very process of creating such standards stifles innovation as it puts imagination and creativity in a box rather than letting them run free. Then again, if the imagination can never really be implemented anyways perhaps putting a small leash on it is not such a bad idea.

Add in comments like BA’s customization options and pitch reductions as the trends for the economy cabin probably are not going to help my mood.

Perhaps I’m just a curmudgeon and have nothing good to say. And I do enjoy the advances in IFE and connectivity systems we’re getting to play with these days. The “distractions” part of the experience are great. I suppose I just wish those distractions were not coming at the expense of things like knee room and more crowded planes. But when even the vendors, designers and consultants have given up hope on that front I guess it is time for me to do so as well. Bummer.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

7 Comments

  1. Here’s the thing — don’t you think air rage (already newsworthy on a regular basis) is going to become out of control as airlines squeeze 9 seats abreast into an airplane designed for 8 (787) or 10 seats abreast into a 777? As someone who no longer works in the industry – and has no status – I have zero desire to even step foot on an airplane, since it’d be in cattle class. And that is sad. My point is, the flying experience for a majority of us is going downhill. Fast. Distraction bubble or not.

  2. There’s one thing that U.S. airlines have not learned. Hungry and bored customers are belligerent (air rage). Give them food and entertainment, and they’ll notice the environment for a minute, and then adapt.

    Most airlines realized this a long time ago. Their underinvestment in free food and IFE is a major source of the issue Dave has outlined. This is reflected in the fact that the number of domestic enplanements in the U.S. is at the same level now as it was in 2006.

  3. To be honest I fly a lot, almost entirely in economy, and maybe my experience is charmed, but I’ve never seen actual “air rage”, and really just about everybody I come in contact with is friendly and polite, whether crew or other passengers. I’m not making this up. I think our own attitude is a significant factor in how we react to our situations and to how our interactions with others go. Why should we be hungry and bored if we can eat before we fly or bring food along, and can use our portable devices with fewer restrictions now? I’m not sure why it’s the airline’s duty to feed me and amuse me. It does have the responsibility to get me where I’m going.

  4. In the spirit of David Cleaves premise, I guess maybe I should express what I want. My desires are all in coach, as first seems to take better care of itself. I want 18″ or wider seats, with 36″ or more between seats. I want considerably better food, as used to be the norm. I want flight attendants that offer smiles and social graces rather than threats to have you removed for the smallest infraction, whether real or perceived. Distractions are lovely if your knees don’t ache from the seat in front of you reclining into your 30 inches. Otherwise, space, food, and service are the most important.

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