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Air Travel Innovations

© Anja Kroencke Mile-High Innovations

Photo: Anja Kroencke

Enter Boeing’s Dreamliner. Beginning at an early stage of the plane’s development, the company has conducted copious research on how to make its newest plane more comfortable, with the rationale that both passengers and airlines will develop a strong preference for a certain type of plane—strong enough to translate into $400 billion of sales and support by 2023, Boeing estimates. Chief among its advances is the Dreamliner’s "lower cabin elevation"—which means, in layman’s terms, that the plane will have more oxygen. Why hasn’t this been done before?The extra air weighs more, but the Dreamliner’s composite construction—it’s essentially plastic, rather than aluminum—is strong and light enough to compensate for it. Along with a slight increase in cabin humidity and additional air filtration, the change should make the Dreamliner feel less like a flying petri dish.

At Boeing’s Customer Experience Center near Seattle—its showroom for planes—Emery led me into the Dreamliner mock-up. The most noticeable difference was the size of the windows, which are more broadsheet than tabloid. In addition to the advantages of more light and a better view, Boeing believes the windows will help us all tap into our early—and pleasurable—childhood experiences of air travel. It’s a bit counterintuitive: rather than try to smooth out the differences between the everyday world and the airborne one, Boeing wants to celebrate them.

Many will disagree. Even the all-premium airlines—ostensibly the most likely candidates to accentuate the experience of travel—strive, instead, to minimize it. "Our goal is to give people as seamless a transition as possible from their life on the ground to their experience in the air," explains Dave Spurlock, founder and chief strategic officer of Eos Airlines.

I had earlier asked Emery why I often feel far more comfortable in a 737 than a 757, when both typically have the same seats, in the same arrangement, with the same legroom. "It’s a less proportional space," he had explained. "In the ’57 it’s so easy to get the sense of the long narrow tube." In the cabin mock-up, Emery pointed out the ways in which the Dreamliner mitigates this unpleasantness: the cabin walls and ceilings are sculpted with curves that are almost baroque, and they’re interrupted by arches that create the illusion of a larger space, if not the reality. Similarly, the cabin door is bigger—almost twice the size of those on many planes today. From an engineering point of view, it’s the Dreamliner’s structure that allows for these changes. But in terms of comfort, it’s all about one’s first impression. Creating this kind of spatial illusion was a favorite architectural trick of both cathedral builders and Frank Lloyd Wright; one just hopes it can last eight hours.

Andrew Blum is a contributing editor at Metropolis and Wired.

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