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.

Designers Tackle The 7 Great Miseries Of Flying

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.


About the author

Margaret Rhodes is a former associate editor for Fast Company magazine.