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Designers Tackle The 7 Great Miseries Of Flying

Cryptic boarding passes, uncomfortable seats, crappy coffee: Flying's pain points get a much-needed makeover courtesy of Ideo, Frog, Priestmangoode, and more.

Where to even begin? Between the TSA screenings and the watered-down coffee and the flight attendants that manage to be folksy and robotic at the same irritating time, we can all agree: Flying sucks. Design-driven companies such as Uber and Airbnb have reimagined how we get to airports, and where we stay when we exit them. Yet, for the most part, the airline companies themselves still feel woefully out of touch.

There are some notable pockets of improvement. TSA announced at the beginning of December the TSA-Pre program, which lets registered users breeze through security with shoes on and laptops in bags. And in the fall, the FAA began approving the use of electronic devices during take-off and landing—a convenience that could give travelers an extra hour or so to file a report or to study for an exam.

But other pain points remain, and are attracting the attention of design firms. "How do we turn lemons to lemonade?" asks Ideo’s chief creativity officer Paul Bennett, who has worked with such clients as JetBlue and Air New Zealand. "We always say, ‘Don’t forget that you’re people serving people.’ One of the big lemons-to-lemonade opportunities here is in service."

Which brings us to…

Miserable airport check-ins

In 1999, Alaska Air became the first to offer at-home, online flight check-ins. (The headline in Business Wire is a sign of the times: "First Passenger Checks In, Receives Boarding Pass Via the Internet Using Alaska's Online Check-in Process.) Not long after, the advent of touch-screen kiosks that could print boarding passes helped to further reduce long lines at airports.

Yet airlines still have employees staffed behind enormous counters that act as boulder-like barriers between them and you. When questions inevitably arise, you're forced to approach the counter (always with dread; those people are expert in ignoring people who need help) and go through the formal transaction you were hoping to avoid in the first place.

Switching from a hospitality model to a retail model could help. "One of the best examples always is Apple, which has untethered their staff," Bennett tells Co.Design. "The technology they’ve been given lets them move around, so they’re walking around being people. There’s a tremendous desire to be talked to by a person as a person," he says. It’s not just Apple that gets it. This ethos is seen ostensibly in Discover Card’s ad campaign tagged with, "We treat you like you’d treat you," which features phone calls between credit card users and their Discover Card employee doppelgangers. Compare that to the standard airline safety video, which is either patriotic or which tries too hard to be funny—and which in no way reflects how real people talk.

Instead, Bennett envisions the end of scripted customer service. Tablets can quickly empower airline employees to rove around the concourse, using common sense to identify customers with questions. "We hope to see the etiquette in the air feeling less robotic," Bennett says.

Stubborn, sticky luggage tags

For years, airlines around the world have used long adhesive luggage tags to make sure checked bags get on the correct aircraft. The method is wasteful: according to the International Air Transport Association, the nearly 3 billion tags that have printed could loop around the earth a ridiculous 39 times.

British Airways recently partnered with London-based Designworks to create a concept for a permanent electronic bag tag. Their blue tag is a fraction of the size of traditional sticky tags and has a screen that looks similar to a Kindle. Using the airline's mobile app and the tag's Near Field Communication technology, you can reprogram their tag every time you fly. British Airways tested the system for a month, on flights between Seattle and London, and reported that all bags made it to their final destination. The airline is now looking at ways to roll out the tag to customers in 2014.

Flimsy, cryptic boarding passes

The boarding pass is a graphic designer’s nightmare. The carbon-printed tickets were originally created for computers to scan, and therefore lack a sense of navigation, or any clear iconography, that accommodates the human eye. The information is like a puzzle and doesn’t even flow from left to right.

"There didn’t seem to be a common design across airlines that tells you when you’re boarding, or what your seat will be, what priority you’re in," says Adam Glynn-Finnegan, a designer for Evernote who decided to sketch out an alternative while sitting on a flight. His draft is built for human eyes—three sets of them, actually. "The customer, the airline staff, and the TSA are all looking for certain things which may not be relevant to one another," he says.

To do this, he created three horizontally stacked grids that mirror, chronologically and from top to bottom, who is reading the ticket. TSA needs to check the ticket first, and confirm identification. Then the traveler has to sleuth out the gate number, and seat assignment, which Gylnn-Finnegan explains with icons that signal a seat in the front or back of the aircraft, and a window or aisle seat. Part of the beauty of the redesign lies in the idea of airlines agreeing on an industry standard, so that wayfinding in airports could be as consistent as street signs, which don't change from city to city. The second, as Glynn-Finnegan puts it, is in, "giving the information back to the customer," so that travelers feel less at the mercy of computer-driven airlines.

That crappy coffee

Co.Design knows all about the dilemma of airplane food and it's not pretty (low humidity, mass-production). Bennett wisely observes: "It’s not about recreating a restaurant, it’s about being contextually appropriate." The same goes for beverages, and one in particular: coffee. You’d never wake up with watered-down Folgers on the ground, even if it were free, so there’s no reason not to extend that standard to life at 30,000 feet.

One easy solution? "Something as simple as an espresso machine, which can get the water hotter, so the coffee doesn’t sit there and burn to death," Bennett says.

Tight, uncomfortable seating

Airline seats are shrinking. As companies try to attract business travelers by expanding that higher-priced section of the cabin, they still want to retain ticket sales in coach. The solution, it seems, is dwindling seat width, down to 17 inches (by comparison, a movie theater seat is 25 inches across). One U.K.-based firm, Seymourpowell, has created a concept for adjustable seats that contour to different sizes and which would follow a pay-per-space pricing plan. Read more about their proposal here.

A less radical (and less mathematically puzzling) solution for making passengers comfortable would be to rethink the materials used in airplane seats. Paul Priestman, design director at London-based firm Priestmangoode, has worked on rebranding the interiors at Turkish Airlines and Lufthansa, and points out that traditional airline seats aren’t much more than blocks of foam.

"Obviously airlines are trying to cramp people together," he tells Co.Design. "So for a lot of economy seats what we’re doing now is about trying to free up area where your knees are." Specifically, Priestman suggests using pressure-mapping technology to find out where critical points of rest are, and then using those measurements to design thinner foam seats that contour to the human frame. This could relieve tension and allow for better circulation in the legs and pelvic region.

Priestmangoode is also tackling seating for passengers who use wheelchairs—an area that’s been sorely ignored until now. Today, when a handicapped person boards a flight they require assistance from flight attendants to get in and out of their seats. A trip to the bathroom means they have to ring for help, even if they would never need to on the ground.

The Air Access system is a series of seats that double as wheelchairs and detach from the plane—on runners, like a sliding a drawer—so that wheelchair users can transition into their seat while waiting at the gate. Once on the aircraft, they can help themselves to and from the bathroom, and off the plane. Priestman says the system would not only spare travelers the indignity of being lifted in and out of a seat, but could actually improve boarding efficiency: "Passengers can transfer into the Air Access seat at their own leisure, while everyone’s waiting," he says. "We believe it will speed up the turnaround time." Air Access is still a concept, but Lufthansa has expressed interest.

Not that movie again

When Netflix and Amazon created their own television series this year, they were not only award-winningly good, they proved that big companies could compete with HBO and Showtime to create a loyal fan base. Bennett doesn’t see why airline companies can’t do the same. "How many times do I have to be sitting in the air, watching some rerun?" he says. Instead, he says companies like Delta and Gogo should partner to create a stream of content that's available only on their flights. "You want people to feel they have a reason to pay for your airline, and for an extra service. Content creation is an opportunity."

"Hey, I landed!"

Invariably, when planes touch down, there’s a cacophony of phone calls and texts made to alert people on land. This makes sense if a friend is picking you up from the airport—what lot are they in? Was there traffic on the way? But less so when the call is made just to reassure family. When Frog Design helped Alitalia rebrand their site and booking system, they also made flights more social, through Facebook and Google.

"The main idea was to deliver the right service and information contextually at the right time and phase of the customer journey," says Gianluca Brugnoli, one of Frog’s creative directors. Put another way: Social alerts can either feel like spam in your newsfeed, or they can feel like thoughtfully designed moments. One such moment would be auto-alerts for when flights take off and land. It’s still on the project’s wish list, but imagine the one-less-thing-feeling that would accompany push notifications being sent to mom, as you de-board a long flight.

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  • Juergen Klein

    I could add a lot more to this:

    1. print your own boarding pass - what a stupid idea for people TRAVELING - I don't carry a printer in my luggage (and then get charged overweight for it). Yet I'm required to do that at my destination as well (and I often don't stay in hotels with printing facilities).
    2. in 2003 German WIngs offered to send boarding passes as QR-code to mobile phone - how many airlines have caught up with this? Hardly any!
    3. assign (even have them w/o notification) seats where the center armrests are fixed! This happened to me on a flight with Emirates from Adelaide to Dubai = once Emirates, never again.
  • Magdalena Bee

    Maybe I'm the only but I wouldn't care if half of these were implemented or not. In fact I would find mobile help desks or check ins to be annoying as I would like to have a clearly marked area where I can get information instead of "being found". I also do not find TSA or flying in general "miserable". I don't think that "technologise everything" is the solution to most of these problems. The one thing that WOULD be interesting to me is some sort of app or sign that tells you when your luggage is ready after you got off the plane.

  • Devin Hermanson

    I wish they had looked at how to make boarding quicker. It always seemed to me that there must be a better way than storing bags above. People get tangled up trying to get things stowed in the overheads.

    Speeding that process would add up to huge time savings for airlines too.

  • Lucas Barbosa

    I hate flying! They should inject me and just make me wake up on my destination. Last year I flu from Australia to Brazil 3 times! Basically I wasted 6 days of my precious life flying lol

  • Paul Brugger

    “The main idea was to deliver the right service and information contextually at the right time and phase of the customer journey,” as software call BizTweet can offer this, their demo account is @FlightStatus. Just Tweet it your flight number and receive a series of read-time flight updates.

  • Paul Brugger

    “The main idea was to deliver the right service and information contextually at the right time and phase of the customer journey,” as software call BizTweet can offer this, their demo account is @FlightStatus. Just Tweet it your flight number and receive a series of read-time flight updates.

  • elisabeth

    Designer should make changes not only cosmetics. Today I was flying SAS. Their new remake has a lot to wish for. Some things are better, but a lot of things seems to be done by designers that never travels and spend time in planes and lounges.

  • I love this. Any chance designers will take a look at the way traffic works in the US? There's got to be a better way to get from point A to point B than all cramming onto a freeway or stopping at a red light at an empty intersection.

    Great article, thanks.

  • Lindsay Sakraida

    People don't just turn their phone on to alert others to their landing, they want to see what they missed while flying. I don't think having a third party send a text on my behalf is helpful as the traveler who has a working phone. I'm going to whip out my cell regardless, power it on, and engage with it. The process of taxiing and getting off the plane takes forever anyway, this is really just a distraction while I wait.

  • The air transportation experience is certainly in need of a makeover, and I think this article address many of the major problems air travelers face. I would suggest against the Apple format of open spaces. While their is definitely a barrier between counter attendants and customers, an open format like an Apple store I think would cause more trouble, especially at peak times. Without the lack of a queuing structure, and with travelers with pressing deadlines, I predict chaos would ensue with shoving, baggage used as rolling weapons, increasing the stress level for all.

    The other area that needs to be addressed is the noise. The level of noise pollution in most airports is worse than city streets. There are no quite spots in the airport to escape the constant (and usually irrelevant) announcements. Reduce the noise, you reduce the stress, and get customers in a better mood once they get on the plane.