Last updated: 07:10 PM ET, Wed October 26 2016

What Will The Flying Experience of the Future Look Like?

Airlines & Airports | Paul Thompson | October 26, 2016

What Will The Flying Experience of the Future Look Like?

Photo illustration by Barry Kaufman

Who knows more about an industry than the individuals who are entrenched deep within it? At the Future Travel Experience global conference in Las Vegas recently, experts from several airlines shared their thoughts on what travel will be like twenty years from now.

“We often overstate the future,” said Airline Passenger Experience Association CEO Joe Leader. “It’s an evolutionary improvement, rather than revolutionary.” Leader predicted that in 2025, airplane Wi-Fi bandwidth demand will continue to outpace supply. He also said that while passengers will have 4K televisions in their homes, that experience won’t be found on planes. But when you consider how small those seat-back TVs are for those who are riding in economy class, your eyes probably won’t notice a big difference between 4K and 1080p resolution.

Leader also said we should expect an increased use of what some people call “mood lighting.” Most modern airline cabin lighting schemes are adjustable for the use of millions of colors. According to passenger satisfaction surveys, lighting effects can increase passenger satisfaction by up to thirty percent. Instead of having lights that simply turn on and off, they can be changed gradually to simulate the sunrise, airline branding colors, or turned to shades of orange or red — which is an old marketing trick in food packaging. The color red somehow stimulates hunger in our minds.

Wearable technologies will also come into play, from the time we check in, to the flight itself. Passengers can be issued bracelets that can be scanned as their boarding pass, but the experience continues. During the flight, sensors within the bracelets can alert flight attendants is passengers are feeling too warm or cold, or even if they are becoming dehydrated and could be offered a glass of water.

Cabin improvements are not a one-size-fits-all for each airline though. Edouard Piquet, SVP Customer Experience at Aeromexico said many of their passengers are not taking advantage of in-flight connectivity availability, calling it “very sexy for very few.” Meanwhile, Rossen Dimitriov,  SVP at Qatar Airways said their passenger experience is so elevated that they’re having to focus on improving their experience for passengers while on the ground.

Brian Richardson, director aircraft systems at American Airlines says the one-upmanship among airlines is “Good for the passengers. There was a long time while airlines were struggling, where things were left alone. Now, we race to meet traveler expectation and match or beat competitor offerings.”

In 2025, Dimitriov foresees a “connected aircraft” where passengers will be able to stream content from their own phones or tablets, wirelessly to the screen on their seat back. He believes passengers will also be able to complete unfinished movie viewings from the plane, after the flight on their own devices. He noted that inflight entertainment technologies may evolve to be even more innovative than what we have in our homes.

Matthew Coder, manager inflight experience at Alaska Airlines agreed with Dimitriov, and said he hopes to see a functionality where people stream their own playlists onboard the aircraft, in the same way Apple’s CarPlay works in vehicles.

For the mean time and well into the future, Wi-Fi bandwidth will be key, whether it’s for passengers simply streaming Netflix, or the airline being able to offer a catalogue of movies and TV shows for their passengers’ entertainment. Aeromexico’s Piquet says jokingly, “My kids need Wi-Fi more than hot water or food,” and predicts Wi-Fi will be free on most flights in the future.

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