Measurement & Instrumentation

The Majesty of Air Travel - VR helmets and standing seats

by Pramod Dibble 18 Sep 2014
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                Margins in the airline industry are horrible. Truly awful. And that’s not hyperbole; it’s a sober reflection on the facts. Depending on whom you ask airlines’ profit is between 1.0 and 2.6 percent, and that in an industry which relies on owning hundreds of airplanes, costing between $80 million and $390 million depending on size. Throw in uncertainty in oil prices, bad press from crashes, and monopoly-owned airports and air traffic control, and you have a dismal scenario.

                The desperate effort to improve profitability has led to airlines cramming more and more people into cabins regardless of the length of the flight. A few weeks ago, three separate planes were grounded as a result of passengers getting into actual fist-fights over perceived encroachment into their measly slice of the space-pie allocated to them. This might indicate that we have reached the lower bound of just how much space you can realistically take away from travelers before it becomes ridiculous. Though some airlines are now offering additional space nearer the front of the cabin (styled as Economy Plus or Economy Comfort, contradictory statements made possible only through marketing doublespeak), at $10-or-more per inch of additional legroom, this certainly isn’t what most people would call value for money.

                Now Airbus has filed patents for a virtual reality helmet which would allow passengers to watch movies, do work, or pretend they’re elsewhere, in partial sensory isolation. While the implementation of this concept might alleviate some of the aggravations of plane travel, I think it is probably not the right way to go. Watching a movie in 3D seems unlikely to distract travelers significantly more than the current system of seatback screens and headphones, and regardless of the beauty of the virtual beach you’re visiting you are still sitting in a seat designed by someone who hates you acting as pillow for the guy to your right.

                Airbus also filed patents for the terrifying “standing-seat” (again with the marketing doublespeak…) which would reduce legroom by one-sixth for economy class passengers. To be used on short flights of one to three hours, this would allow airlines to seat –I use the term loosely- 21 percent more passengers per airplane, and drop prices by as much as 40 percent. This is assuming the passenger is able to get into their seat at all, a huge assumption made, presumably, in a board room where everyone has ample time to exercise and money to eat healthy food.

                I fully understand the pressure on executives to increase company profits. But packing even more people into what is, objectively, an already overcrowded space, and then giving them a helmet so they can pretend to be at the beach, is not the answer. Airlines have almost exclusively chosen to compete on price, rather than on value. Just about everything on airplanes has become a cliché for being terrible; the food, seats, entertainment, etc… And to make all of that worse in pursuit of profit seems misguided.

                The things that people actually want when on an airplane are comfortable chairs, a modicum of privacy, and a decent choice of nice things to eat and drink. I refuse to accept that there is no way to provide these things at a competitive price; in fact, several design firms have posited airplane designs to address the preferences of travelers. Several examples: the Thompson Cozy Suite staggers seat placement to increase passenger comfort while using less space, another idea involves using the vertical space within the cabin for passenger seating rather than carry-on storage here, and a third creates an armrest that two people can use simultaneously without touching.

                As a frequent business traveler, I believe there are opportunities for airlines to differentiate on customer value rather than purely on price. And none of that involves giving me a virtual reality helmet.

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