Breakthrough planes from Boeing and Airbus, fresh approaches to cabin design, and new services on the ground aim to change air travel for the better.
© Anja Kroencke Mile-High Innovations
| Credit: © Anja Kroencke

Each step is familiar and unpleasant. I am getting on a plane from New York to Seattle to visit the mock-up of the new 787 Dreamliner, which Boeing promises will herald a more comfortable era of air travel. But since the Dreamliner won’t be flying until the end of the year at the earliest, experiencing this comfortable future means enduring the present: discolored wallpaper, worn cushions, tabloid-size windows, and fluorescent lights. A few hours later, all the familiar discomforts are there: my mouth and contact lenses are dry, I’ve got a wisp of a headache, and the walls have closed in. But the future will be better, right?

Blake Emery is Boeing’s director of differentiation strategy, responsible, in part, for making the company’s planes more comfortable than anyone else’s. When we meet, he’s talking about a dinner party where—not for the first time—a frequent flier eagerly shared ideas about how to improve passenger comfort. "I cringe. Not that I wouldn’t love to hear something different, but it’s like, Gee, you don’t have enough legroom?But that’s not going to change, because you’re talking about the most expensive real estate on the planet."

The arms race in premium classes has engendered some staggeringly luxurious cabin configurations—recently abetted by the arrival of the double-decker Airbus A380 "super-jumbo." And several airlines are placing renewed emphasis on the door-to-door experience, expanding their scope of service to the lounge, check-in, and even the trip to the airport. There’s never been a better time to fly first class. And while the seats may not be getting any bigger in coach, at least you’re more likely to have your own TV to be distracted by.

In October, Singapore Airlines, long an industry leader, became the first to fly the new A380, which it has partly outfitted with 12 fully enclosed "suites." Resembling Pullman cars circa 1905 (but with 23-inch televisions), they have fold-down beds, some of which can be combined to create a double bed in the sky. More striking is what they’re not doing with all that extra space: there’ll be none of the casinos, duty-free shops, or cocktail bars that Airbus had originally envisioned. Instead, they’re filling the entire upper deck with sofa-size business-class seats.

Qantas, which will roll out A380’s in August, expected that their passengers would jump on the cruise-ship-in-the-sky novelty of varied onboard activities, but focus groups have proved otherwise. The company’s premium-class customers initially expressed enthusiasm for the idea of showers on the A380, until they got to the details. "What would happen if there were turbulence?How would the showers be cleaned?Who would manage the queue?" said Qantas’ Lesley Grant, general manager for customer products and services, recalling their concerns.

Qantas has expanded its first-class lounges in an effort to enhance the "curb to curb" experience—which has been a strong suit for rapidly expanding all-business-class airlines like Eos and Silverjet. "Customers are very uncomfortable by the time they get on a plane, which makes it hard for the crew to make them comfortable again," says Silverjet CEO Lawrence Hunt. Domestically, Delta is betting on the basics. "Our customers want quality and style, and they care about their well-being," said Joan Vincenz, Delta’s managing director for global product. "It’s not caviar, but it may be organic," she added. The airline has begun installing "slimline" seats that add an extra 1½ inches of space. Sounds nice—but the idea that such a change is news only underlines the fact that the band of opportunity for improvement is extremely narrow.

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.


Qantas: 450 seats

Singapore: 471 seats


Qantas: 14 fully enclosed first-class suites; separate business-class lounge; interiors designed by Marc Newson

Singapore: 12 first-class suites; world’s largest business-class seats; entertainment system with more than 100 movies

• 736 planes on order at press time

• First delivery—to All-Nippon Airways (ANA)—is expected by December 2008

• Other airlines with planes on order include Air Canada (35), Air India (27), Continental (25), and Qantas (45)