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Perfecting Your Flight Accommodations With Pete Guard of Boeing
Photograph by Jose Mandojana
Photograph by Jose Mandojana

Pete Guard
Cabin-experience strategy leader, Boeing

Guard, 52, is leading Boeing's efforts to improve in-flight design and comfort for aging passengers.

"Air travel isn't the wonderful experience it was 20 years ago. We have to get back to some of that comfort. As boomers age, their vision, mobility, and hearing may become a challenge, but the last thing we want is to make them seem less than capable — they're an independent group. Those oversize phones with giant buttons are an insult. We're replacing those awkward bifold lavatory doors with panel doors, and we have redesigned the latches on overhead bins to make them more intuitive. We can make the seats more lightweight and decrease the thickness of the back without compromising comfort, creating more leg room without cutting the seat count."

-Online Extended Q&A-

Fast Company: How do you being to approach rethinking airplane cabins for this age group?

PG: Airplanes are such a great design challenge—what else moves around the world the way a plane cabin does, while serving such a broad community? As we consider the passenger, especially the aging population, we have to focus on usability. Anything we can do to remove the stress and friction points within the cabin, that’s a good thing.

FC: What are some of the ways you remove that friction?

PG: We’re replacing those awkward bifold lavatory doors with panel doors, and we have redesigned the latches on overheard bins to make them more intuitive. The airplane interior is as much an industrial product as it is a consumer product. This morning on my way in to work, I stopped by an ATM and was really delighted to see what a nice job the design firm did with the buttons, contrast ratios, the lighting cues of where cash would be dispensed—it almost guided you through the experience in an assisted way, not an insulting way. We want our interiors to keep pace with the expectations of the consumer space outside of the plane.

FC: You’re working with P&G’s Live Well Collaborative in Singapore to learn more about the aging population—why Singapore?

PG: When you look at the trends in aging, Singapore is moving a lot faster than the rest of the world. It’s at the epicenter of a trend that’s starting to play out—all the issues of mobility, assistance, and longevity. We’ll work through their university systems and design schools to help develop projects that will give us a better idea of how to support travelers around the planet.

FC: What’s next on your list of things to improve?

PG: We’re really trying to get a better handle on the door-to-door travel journey. We’re trying to take a more holistic view because there are things that can be improved off the plane as well. For example, we’ve been involved with the boarding process to decrease wait times and make it smoother. It’s not constantly deployed because its each airline’s choice, but there are some universal themes that we can help with. The auditory quality at the gate is often not very good, which is challenging especially for the older population. So we look at how we can signal that boarding is commencing beyond the verbal announcements.

FC: Aside from airline companies, who else do you work with as you try to create a better "travel journey?"

PG: We have to work across industry alliances. There was a workshop held on electric wheelchairs, which have become very ubiquitous in the travel experience, but the design of a lot of those chairs is as such that they can’t fit anywhere on the plain without some disassembling. We talked with manufacturers of those chairs to discuss what accommodations and design changes can be made to help passengers’ experience more seamless and hassle-free. We know that Boeing can’t do this alone.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

A version of this article appeared in the February 2011 issue of Fast Company magazine.