The 13 Best Aircraft Cabin Innovations Ever
Introduced by Virgin Atlantic in the 1990s, this fourth cabin class has made comfortable long-haul travel affordable for many. But don’t be fooled by today’s re-packaged Plus (and minus) Economy classes which offer more leg room. A true premium economy cabin is a clearly differentiated product, with unique seats and loads of comfort and service features. There are many other airlines offering proper premium economy seats today including Japan Airlines, Lufthansa, SAS and, more recently, Singapore Airlines, but Virgin Atlantic has done its legacy proud by offering passengers a premium economy experience that is hard to beat.
The Overhead Bin
Though the often-maligned overhead bin might not be an obvious choice for an innovation worth praising, it plays a vital role in passenger convenience and safety. Overhead bins allow passengers to bring personal items and luggage onboard, and they also make the skies safer, keeping those bags secure during emergencies and turbulence. The extra storage comes at a price, of course; namely a loss of space that makes cabins feel more crowded than they already are. But that may soon change: Airbus and Boeing have both introduced high-capacity bins for their next-generation aircraft. These new pivoting bins are designed to be easier to load and weight-balanced so that closing them is effortless, plus they leave plenty of ceiling room, making the new cabins feel cavernous.
Reclining Sofa Seats and Leg Rests
The La-Z-Boy of the skies has been perfected and refined since its introduction in the 1980s. Fine dining, five-star service, and a high-tech office, and a host of other comfort features make longer flights far more bearable. On some airlines, flashy seats are only available for first-class passengers while on others they might come in a premium economy version (like the picture seats from Singapore Airlines), but all offer improved comfort on longer flights.
The Seat Pod
A British Airways innovation in the mid-1990s, the seat pod has evolved to include a wide range of versions, including this super-lush and extra-roomy high-tech business-class seat now being introduced on Singapore Airlines. With automatic seat controls that covert to angled-flat or full-lie-flat beds, cubby holes to store our most needed items, state-of-the-art in-flight entertainment, massage functions, in-seat outlets, and a host of other personal comforts, luxury seat pods allow long-haul passengers to reach their destination satisfied and well rested.
The Full-Lie-Flat Bed
British Airways revolutionized first class and business class with the introduction of lie-flat beds in the 1990s, making dreams literally come true for weary executives. Seats that can recline to 180 degrees are now the benchmark of quality premium cabin interiors, with airlines competing to offer the best beds in the skies by adding quality bedding and comforters and increased privacy. British Airways, in turn, has upped the ante by debuting a suite element in its latest-generation first-class cabins on the A380.
The First-Class Shower and Spa
Emirates airline’s first-class shower and spa took a lot of clever engineering to accommodate, but the result is pretty astounding. The shower rooms themselves are larger than the average New York City bathroom, offer heated floors with manual temperature control, and are overseen by dedicated shower attendants. For longer flights, it's an excellent way to refresh and relax before landing, and a perfect complement to the extreme luxury of today’s best first-class service.
The Private Cabin
Some airlines, like Emirates, Singapore Airlines, and Asiana Airways (shown) aim to keep first class worth the extra fare by offering private cabins that harken to the golden age of rail travel on some flights. If you can afford it, little compares to the joy of a long-haul journey with five-star pampering in a cabin all your own. Be warned: you’ll be spoiled for almost every other form of air travel, short of your own private jet—or our next featured cabin innovation.
We’re unlikely to see another airline try to better—or even try to match—the Residence by Etihad. A clever design bonus that allows the airline to earn revenue from an underused space in the A380, the Residence includes a private bedroom, living room, bathroom complete with shower, butler service, private chef, and luxury amenities. The only bad thing about the Residence is that you can't live in it year-round.
Inspired by the lounges launched by iconic airlines Braniff and Pan Am on their 747s, a number of airlines are including a social space on larger aircrafts, giving passengers a chance to stretch their legs and enjoy a few beverages with old friends and new. Virgin Atlantic revived the lounge trend in the 1990s and continues to mix things up at 30,000 feet with a couples’ dining service on its new Dreamliner aircraft.
The Onboard Boutique
Duty-free shopping is one of many entertainments on offer in the skies, but peddling goods on trolley carts loaded with goodies are becoming passé. Airlines have raised the bar for in-flight retail by adding shopping menus to their entertainment screens and offering passengers the opportunity to ship the goods straight to their homes. Others, like Korean Air, introduced onboard boutiques (or shopping lounges) that let us stretch our legs while we do a little in-flight window shopping.
Trans World Airways branded in-flight entertainment as a key feature of long-haul air travel, but even the company’s founder—Hollywood insider Howard Hughes—could not have foreseen just how entertaining the skies would become. Trolley carts loaded with goodies are becoming passé. Airlines like American Airlines, Delta, Jet Blue, and many others enjoy a wide variety of blockbusters, shows, live television, music, and sports—all on demand. High-resolution screens, state-of-the-art technology, and the introduction of in-flight Wi-Fi provide continued improvements in this cabin comfort.
Cabin Lighting and Environmental Controls
Who would imagine that flying could become a feast for the senses? Programmable LED lighting that sets a pleasant mood and allows airlines like Icelandair to simulate the aurora borealis on their special northern lights–themed planes. Lighting also helps passengers regulate their biorhythms during long- flights across time zones. Improvements in climate, humidity, and noise reduction are making next-generation aircrafts healthier, more restful places. Airlines are also experimenting with ways to use aromas to soothe us (lavender-scented neck pillow, anyone?), and calling on top chefs and scientists to make in-flight meals more appetizing.
Improved Aircraft Windows
The larger windows on next-generation aircrafts like the Boeing Dreamliner and Airbus A350XWB provide better views of the world below and let in ample natural light, which makes the cabin feel less confining. Some windows can be dimmed at the touch of a button if it’s too sunny, but B/E Aerospace wants to squeeze the juice from that sunshine with a solar-powered window screen that doubles as a charger for smartphones and tablets.