Skip to main content

How to make air travel more tolerable

No, you won’t have more legroom. But you’ll feel like you do.

By Glenn McDonald

Considering the technological achievements all around us — artificial intelligence, quantum computers, samurai robots — it’s strange that air travel is such a perpetual bummer. If the experience of flying on a commercial airline has changed at all since 1960s, it’s generally for the worse — smaller seats, long security lines, fewer perks. It’s uncomfortable and claustrophobic, unless you spend a lot more for business class.

The good news is, the experience of coach-class air travel is likely to get better in the next few years. The bad news is, the changes en route will be relatively small.

And the weird news is, the most likely changes are not actually real.

The challenge stems from simple math. According to the nonprofit advocacy organization National Association Of Airline Passengers (NAAP), airlines have gradually reduced their average leg room by about four inches by reducing the seat pitch — the distance from one row to the next — from 35 to 31 inches. Some budget airlines have gone as low as 28 inches. Shoulder room has decreased, as well.

Displays on seat backs, video and audio feeds, complimentary earbuds — these innovations are all designed to keep your mind off your surroundings.

More rows means more passengers per flight and better profits. “That’s great for the airlines,” says Douglas Kidd, the NAAP’s executive director. “It’s not so great for the passengers.” The NAAP and other advocates have petitioned the federal government to limit seat size reductions. And in recent years, airline manufacturers have slimmed down armrests to create more hip room and redesigned overhead bins to improve headroom.

But Kidd says airlines have concluded that passengers will put up with cramped seating for lower ticket prices. “Airlines say you don’t need that much space and you can tolerate anything for a short period of time,” he says.

In lieu of space, airlines have turned to distraction techniques. Displays on seat backs, video and audio feeds, complimentary earbuds — these innovations are all designed to keep your mind off your surroundings.

But the most likely near-future changes to in-flight entertainment will aim to change your perception of the space around you. Rather than give your seat more height, width, or depth, airlines are exploring a fourth dimension: the virtual realm. You might not have more space, but the aim of these innovations is to make you feel like you have more space. 

Mood lighting

Already, several forward-looking airlines have deployed mood lighting systems designed to calm passengers and even lull them to sleep. These lighting schemes can even be programmed to alleviate jet lag on longer flights. Boeing is currently developing in-cabin micro-projectors that generate images on interior surfaces of the cabin. You might get a pretty blue sky on the ceiling and overhead bins, or a pastoral landscape on the seat back in front of you. If you happen to be traveling in the north anytime soon, Icelandair is currently flying its Hekla Aurora aircraft, illuminated with an interior LED projection of the Northern Lights.

VR goggles

In 2017, Air France offered some passengers virtual reality headsets designed to create the illusion of a private movie theater. Each headset provides a menu of 40 or so movies and TV shows, then generates a kind of virtual perceptual space around the passenger.

The VR headsets, provided by startup company SkyLights, can display videos in 2D or 3D. They’re plugged into jacks in the armrests. Predictably, the VR option is only offered in business class for now, but Air France says the system could be rolled out to all passengers if it proves successful. SkyLights is also working with several other airlines to develop the technology, which may make it into more planes within the next few years.

Virtual windows

It’s not commonly known, but for several decades, airlines have toyed with the idea of removing windows entirely from the passenger cabins of aircraft. Eliminating windows would actually make the big airliners safer and cheaper to manufacture. “Every time you put a window in an airplane you’re essentially putting a hole in the structure,” says Kidd. “If we didn’t have to have windows we could save manufacturing costs and make the aircraft stronger.” But the claustrophobic effect on passengers has kept airlines from making the move.

That may change with the advent of flexible and ultra-thin digital displays that can essentially replace physical windows with virtual ones. In the UK, aerospace companies are currently working on the Windowless Fuselage concept, in which the entire inner surface of the cabin is covered with high-def flexible display screens. These systems are just in concept phase for now, but they could make air travel cheaper, safer, and more comfortable.

The displays can be programmed to show videos and images — pictures of your destination resort, perhaps. Or they can be wired to exterior cameras for a live feed of what you’d be looking at through a window anyway.

Personal VR devices

In recent years, airlines looking for in-flight distractions have benefited tremendously from three magic words: portable electronic devices. Passengers are bringing their own full-service distraction technology, from smartphones to tablets, with them. You know how airlines are allowing more use of devices now, and even providing free wi-fi? Yeah, that’s on purpose. They’re trying to keep you occupied.

New, inexpensive, and portable virtual reality headsets, such as the Oculus Go, allow anyone with a smartphone to bring that fourth-dimension virtual space onto flights. You can expect airlines to start partnering with digital entertainment companies to offer the equivalent of VR in-flight movies, presumably with all the swear words edited out.

Augmented reality

Some developers are creating a different type of virtual space by incorporating augmented reality into smartphone apps. Consider the Space Viewer app, which uses AR to turn your phone into a kind of virtual viewfinder. If you point your camera phone out the aircraft window, Space Viewer overlays digital information onto the view, highlighting natural features below — rivers, lakes, mountains, and towns.

The video provided on the app page shows a real-time demonstration of the tech, and it’s pretty slick. Looking out the window is a whole new experience when you can actually identify what you see. It almost makes the window seat appealing again. Other designers are working on this concept and it looks like an indicator of things to come.

Little tweaks and big changes

Besides virtual space, you’ll likely see minor tweaks to the passenger experience in the next few years. In 2016, Boeing unveiled a self-scrubbing lavatory prototype that uses ultraviolet light to kill off “99.9 percent” of pathogens on bathroom surfaces, according to the company. Seat designer Recaro is developing a seat surface infused with a disinfectant that destroys germs on contact. The audio firm Holosonics is developing an “audio spotlight” technology that could one day create an individual cone of silence — or music, or whatever — around each seat.

These little changes may someday give way to radical changes. The Air Lair passenger module is just one of the hundreds of concept-stage proposals circulating within the industry at any given time. The Air Lair and similar modules would convert unused cargo space into sleeping berths for those passengers willing to pay. The website for the Crystal Cabin Awards features more ideas percolating in the airline cabin design scene.

But these changes are several years and many dollars away. For plebeian economy-class fliers, there’s simply no more room to be had, unless we move into the virtual realm. It’s a kind of virtual age Zen puzzle, really. If you’re crowded into a 18-by-28-inch space, but your VR rig tells you you’re in a primeval forest, watching a tree fall and hearing it make a sound, are you more comfortable than before?

Published on

Glenn McDonald is a writer based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.


Climate change is hitting national parks hard. Here’s how the park service is reacting.

Wildfires, wolves, trout: When the parks resist climate change, when they accept it, and when they direct it.

By Matt Crossman