RKS developed an airline concept that would address a family’s unique needs when traveling.

Keeping in mind three main principles--relax, nurture, and entertain--every experience of the as-yet-non-existent airline was reconsidered, from check-in to luggage pick-up.

The plane would be configured with family-facing seats, so the little darlings can kick their parents’ knees instead of the seatback in front of them. Lavatories would be spacious enough for diaper changing, and personal sound curtains would keep bellowing babies calm and quiet.

Is it financially viable? RKS founder and CEO Sawhney points to the success of Southwest as a possible model. “Families are an overlooked minority of travelers and no airline provider has made a move to address their special needs,” he says.

The family’s various "pain points" were considered when conceiving the project.

Co.Design

A Concept Airline Eases The Pain Of Traveling With Toddlers

Could a family-friendly airline make sense in today’s no-frills air-travel industry? A California design studio thinks so.

It’s hard to know what’s worse: being a business traveler subjected to other passengers’ messy, wailing kids, or being a parent of same, enduring the hostilities and indignities of traveling with young children.

In September, AirAsia joined Malaysian Airlines in creating kid-free zones on its flights, prompting an international flame war on the web debating whether the practice was overly indulgent to self-centered adults, or the best thing in travel since wheels on luggage.

RKS, a strategic design consultancy in Thousand Oaks, California, saw the problem as a design opportunity: What if there was a new airline, or a separate brand within an existing airline, that focused on the needs of family travelers from the ground up? This week, the firm unveiled cAir, a new concept in air travel for stressed-out families and their labor-intensive offspring.

“We are constantly on the alert for pain points in people’s lives,” says Ravi Sawhney, RKS founder and CEO. “We have looked deeper and deeper into the human condition and it has opened our eyes into things we have never seen before. In the case of cAir, it became apparent to us that we need to do something about it.”

The concept was born at an interaction design conference in Savannah, Georgia, where RKS led several groups focused on identifying needs and opportunities.

"When we started brainstorming the venture, we had seven team members do a think-aloud narration of the flying experience to Savannah (which was fresh in our memories) from our home cities," says Harnish Jani, RKS’s director of design strategy and research.

One of the team members said, “I am here with my husband and lucky him—he’s probably sleeping right now after the long travel, connecting flights, and time zone shift from the West Coast. I can’t imagine bringing my kids with me though, since the long travel we experienced would be grueling,” Jani reported.

Another immediately chimed in: “We have stopped even considering flying with kids anymore for vacation. As a frequent business flier, I am usually tuned to my own set rituals, but traveling with my two- and four-year-old is what I fear—staring eyes from other passengers, and fear of embarrassment. I wish it wasn’t a 'get on fast, get off fast’ feeling, especially when I’m paying for one of the most expensive square footage areas."

Those confessions triggered a chorus of other pain points and demonstrated a clear need for cAir, Jani says. Keeping in mind three main principles—relax, nurture, and entertain—every experience of the as-yet-non-existent airline was reconsidered, from check-in to luggage pick-up.

In the airport itself, easy-to-read signage directs families to services like express check-in, stroller rentals, and play lounges. Kids would be invited to a kiosk where they could rent a toy to take along (and, presumably, have mom or dad purchase when the tyke refuses to part with it after the flight).

The plane would be configured with family-facing seats, so the little darlings can kick their parents’ knees instead of the seatback in front of them. Lavatories would be spacious enough for diaper changing, and personal sound curtains would keep bellowing babies calm and quiet. Menus would be designed around kid-friendly food, and storage around the space-intensive needs of strollers, car seats, toys, and gear.

All good. But could this concept actually be profitable in the financially beleaguered airline industry, where cost-cutting, not service-enhancement, is the order of the day? Sawhney points to the success of Southwest as a possible model. “Families are an overlooked minority of travelers and no airline provider has made a move to address their special needs,” he says. "The population traveling with children is large, but the key is that by making it a pleasure instead of a terror, the market size will grow. A large carrier could start by developing a sub-brand for major travel routes."

Are you listening, American Airlines? Might launching American Kids Air stem your losses and be more fun than a merger with US Airways? Just think of luring all those tykes flying to Orlando with diaper-changing tables and Rent-an-Elmo. Ka-ching!

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12 Comments

  • Kevin P.

    Ridiculous or not (as the others say), as a father to 3 small children, I was ready to book my next flight with cAir!

    It is a pain in the A$$ to fly with small children, passengers make us feel criminal for bringing them on board.  I've flown internationally many times with my children and each time it has been nail biting until the end of the journey.

    Where can I petition for this to happen?P.S. if you need any personal testimonials on how it is to fly with small children, let me know - I'm all game!

  • Stefano Bianchini

    It
    could be a really good opportunity to work on,

    but
    sincerely the contents and the concepts expressed in the video are an
    hazard, they are not mature, and some of them are also silly, not so
    professional. It's strange FastCo is posting something like that. 

    I
    work in a design consultancy were everyday people get passionate
    designing products, services and brand experiences that are
    meaningful and desirable for the people who enjoy them, and that
    generate profit for our clients.

    And
    since I am really passionate about this subject, and since I would
    really work on that I can see that there are many opportunities to
    work on. Airports are complex systems where many stakeholders work in
    an orchestrated way. Envisioning products, services and
    experiences in this field requires the realization of a strong
    abstraction and observation process where the designers start to look
    at the environment, the actors and the situations as if they were
    many big russian dolls connected each other. The design activity is
    then reduced to a small portion of the whole system.

    Everything
    you do on the front-end for delighting the customer must be also well
    studied and smooth on the back-end for the stakeholder who has to
    deliver it. 

    It's
    not just about renting a toy.

    FastCo
    please do more selection on the content, or you will loose
    credibility and also many followers.

    Stefano
    Bianchini, 

    service
    designer at continuum

  • pn

    Non-aspirational top level thought from a company with no airline design experience. Shame on you FastCo for letting this on. 

  • Ivan Faerman

    I can't believe this made it on the site. I see the problem it tries to adress, but most of the changes proposed are beyond ridiculous. 
    I do not know anything about the airline business, but I can see multiple problems with these ideas. For example, facing seats are probably terrible at space economy, given that in order to make these seats reclinable they would need to have some sort of buffer with the next row of seats... 

    Bigger bathrooms has some sense, though I wouldn't know about security issues or any economic aspect concerning space. 

    Rent-a-toy made me laugh. 

    The curtains that isolate seats as well. Next thing, to avoid bothering your seat neighbor when you want to go to the bathroom your seat will transform into a toilette... 

    Other problems I see involve the marketing of this airline. Nobody, and I mean, NOBODY, who travels alone, on business, or without children will want to be anywhere near one of these plains. And, even if you travel with children, I might be willing to spare my child with "rent-a-toy" in order to travel in a normal plane, given that at least there won't be other children to bother me. 

    A side comment on food. They propose children-friendly food and in one of the vignettes you can see McDonalds fries... In one of the "engaging moments of truths" the video shows at the end, it says something like "they guarantee that my children eat healthy food". I am not one for conspiracies, or anti-corporations, or anything. But I don't think there is much debate about the health aspect of french fries... 

    I hope these comments are useful to somebody. I wasn't trying to be smart or destructive. 

  • Wize Adz

    You've got to fix the TSA before any of this matters.
    I'm not taking my toddler through that adversarial groping/stripping/irradiating process.  I got the full treatment on my last flight, and that's no place for children.  Or for adults.

  • EDULCET

    I like the concept of making airlines less stressful for parents and more enjoyable for children. Some of the proposed design changes would benefit everyone and not just families. Who could argue with bigger restroom facilities? or a designated area for the children to play in during layovers or before departure? Some of these changes could be implemented without much work and minimal costs. Simply adding a few toys onto the on-board menu would suffice for children with nothing to do. Rearranging a few rows of seats to face each other along with sound dampening curtains could relieve other passengers of crying babies and/or prove useful for slightly formal meetings during the flight.

  • manfriz

    How much it would be? I think that if actually a lot of people prefers to buy cheap tickets with Ryanair rather than pay more for a better service the crucial point is to make these services available at an affordable price...
    (sorry for the bad english!)

  • Tom

    If actually so many travellers feel annoyed by families with children ( and it can be reasonably understood that traveling already is too stressful), maybe airlines should think of better ways to "calm" the mood of these people by offering more personal resting zones and semi-private facilities, providing them with a better noise tolerance against more noisy families. Something like the obsideon resting pods by Roger Kellenberger for the Zurich airport

  • Greg Berguig

    I've  recently been traveling quite a bit with my 18 month old son. I find it very interesting that US Airways and American do NOT pre-board parents traveling with infants anymore, same goes for United (which didn't even have a changing table on the last flight I took). Thankfully there are airlines like Jet Blue, Virgin, and even Delta, that still pay attention to these customers.

  • Dave malouf

    Love that this type of project was conceived at Interaction10 in Savannah as part of IxDA's annual conference. Just great to see the conference having that type of impact way afterwards.