“If pre-board is better, that carries over to the plane.”

By Marisa Garcia
December 23, 2016
Credit: Jeff Hunter/Getty Images

Airlines are helping their premium passengers start the journey started on the right foot by designing seamless ground-to-air experiences.

Virgin Atlantic was an early innovator of this concept, and has continued to deliver exceptional ground-to-air design over the years: The airline ensures that passengers look forward to arriving at the airport by making a modern and playful lounge experience central to the brand, then extends that groovy feeling onboard by offering passengers a stylish and comfortable Upper Class cabin and a bar.

Credit: Courtesy of Virgin Atlantic

Meanwhile, Etihad Airways’ Reimagined experience is about making passengers feel at home in the skies, including private suites, apartments, and a comfortable lounge. But this luxury is enhanced by the airline’s international lounges with design elements that complement the experience onboard.

Airlines are telling a story...

The design team at JPA Design London, have helped design the ground to air experiences for several airlines, including Air China, American Airlines, and Gulf Air.

“The key aspect [of ground-to-air design] is that the ethos of the brand can be controlled consistently,” Alex Duncan, design director at JPA Design London, told Travel + Leisure.

Credit: Courtesy of American Airlines

While helping shape new American Airlines experience, the firm focused on the continuity of a modern aesthetic, with a design elements at the lounge which follow the shapes and tones of the airline’s new long-haul cabins.

Credit: Courtesy of American Airlines
Credit: Courtesy of American Airlines

In the case of Air China, JPA Design helped create an aesthetic that tells a brand story which embodies the national identity of the airline and carries through to all classes on plane.

Motifs of earth and sky are represented as “phoenix in flight and cloud,” created by Chinese artist Mr. Han Meilin. This graphic art appears in various decorative elements at the lounge and in the cabin, with earth tones for the ground, blue tones for the skies, and red highlights which represent the wings of the phoenix.

Credit: Courtesy of Air China
Credit: Courtesy of Air China
Credit: Courtesy of Air China

Beyond pleasing aesthetics, Duncan explains, this design strategy helps passengers get in the right mood to fly: “If pre-board is better, that carries over to the plane,” he said.

...and hoping to manage travelers' stress

“People have mapped out the stress levels across the journey, and pre-board is a huge source of anxiety to passengers,” Duncan said.

Studies conducted by airline technology company SITA found there are sharp dips in passenger mood shortly after check-in at the airport.

Credit: SITA

That lines at security induce stress would not surprise anyone who has flown on a plane in recent years, but SITA’s study also found that passenger mood improves dramatically when they enjoy a pleasant airport experience.

A star is born

With Polaris, United becomes the latest airline to adopt this ground to air design trend.

The new Polaris Business class lounge was designed with the needs of business travelers in mind, ensuring they find a place for everything at the lounge and in the cabin. It considers all the activities passengers might want to enjoy at the lounge or on the plane: relaxing, working, dining. But it also considers the practical realities of modern business travelers: that we carry a lot of things with us, and that we want to work wherever we like.

Credit: Courtesy of United Airlines

There’s no business center at the Polaris lounge, this concept is replaced by more comfortable private work and relaxation spaces—called Quad seats—which include a place to store onboard luggage and hang a coat.

On the plane, the seats are also designed to be like those Quad seats from the lounge. They are comfortable and practical living quarters for the duration of the flight. The design of the onboard self-service bar complements the design of the self-service buffet at the lounge.

Credit: Courtesy of United Airlines

“It seems an obvious thing to do but it's difficult for many companies because they are set up with different decisions and they have different regulations,” said Nigel Goode, co-founder and director of design studio Priestmangoode, London, which helped United develop the new Polaris concept. “There are certain things you can do on the ground which you can't in the air.”

For practical and safety reasons, there are strict limitations on the types of materials and structures which can be installed on planes. They have to be tested and proven to withstand crash impact and resist flames. They also have to be light-weight, and they have to be durable.

An airline might easily swap-out a design element which doesn’t work in the lounge, but changing anything that doesn’t work on the plane requires a new certification process and taking planes out of service to install the new component.

The close coordination of different departments in the airline also makes designing ground-to-air experiences difficult.

Credit: Courtesy of United Airlines

Polaris isn’t just an improvement for United’s passengers, according to Goode: It is also a sign of a new era of collaboration between employees of the airline.

“For United to get the team to come together and make this a common experience—build on innovation and put the passenger at the center for the service to carry all the way through—it's the start of something culturally different for them,” he said.

“We've really been impressed with how United approached this project,” said Goode. “They could have pulled back, but they have followed through and done the whole thing and worked with their partners to achieve it.”