We’re not quite post-pandemic, but lockdown restrictions are lifting, borders are re-opening, and travel permissions are easing. Even pre-vaccine, passengers will take to the skies again as the world emerges from this social and economic coma. But how quickly? Airline survival, after all, is based on passengers coming back. ASAP.
“Airlines need solutions right now, not years in the making. Teague is helping the industry get back on track and invest in sustainable solutions, not short-term fixes.”
On June 3, Teague’s Senior Director of Airline Experience, Anthony Harcup, led a roundtable discussion, “Sustainable Cabin Innovations in the Face of Covid-19,” hosted by Germany-based RedCabin. Panel members included Etihad Airways Senior Manager of Product & Guest Experience, Peter Azzouni; Boeing’s Senior Manager of Customer Engineering, Rebekah Willis; Alaska Airlines Cabin Product & Experience Manager, Chris Dela Rosa; and Jet Blue’s Senior Manager of Aircraft Interiors, Drew Latavis.
The panel explored passenger anxieties, the reshuffling of design priorities, and making sustainable changes to what is inarguably central to the air travel experience: the cabin interior. The discussion can be segmented into two major tracks, 1) reducing—or preventing—the spread of viruses in the cabin, and 2) perception management.
Reducing the Spread of the Virus
A Dose of Realism.
It’s a hard pill for the industry to swallow, but it’s true: this coronavirus was literally carried all over the world by airplanes. Ensuring a safe, clean, and hygienic environment is top priority.
Guidance from governments and the CDC has been inconsistent and vague when applied to aircraft interiors. Each business has its own approach to gaining more in-depth knowledge of how viruses can be transmitted onboard. Jet Blue is partnering with privately hired medical experts. Alaska Airlines is collaborating with a research team at the University of Washington.
Meanwhile, tactical implementations, like mask requirements and passenger hygiene kits, have sprung up rapidly across the industry, with varying concepts. Cleaning procedures have intensified in frequency and method. An increasingly adopted treatment is electrostatic spraying, a viable solution for the immediate term, though it raises concerns. For one, striking the right balance between chemical and virus exposure requires further examination. And two, existing surfaces aren’t made to withstand excessive abrasion from harsh disinfectants.
Longer-term cabin changes will focus on new materials and antimicrobial surfaces (decisions that will be heavily based on scientific findings, which have so far shown that COVID’s external lifespan depends on surface material). And aesthetics, like color choices, will make a difference in showcasing cleanliness.
“We'll see lighter colors in the cabin, more synthetic leathers with anti-microbial qualities, smoother dress cover designs, and fewer split-lines, and dirt traps.”
Technology will play a starring role in upcoming solutions, as there’s an emphasis on reducing the need to physically interact with interfaces, inside the cabin and out. Creating a “touchless experience” for passengers is vital to the strategic framework. Biometric IDs, automated boarding lanes, QR-coded bag checks, contactless payments, smartphones connected to seat-back screens--these solutions may be incited by COVID-19, but will ultimately improve workflow and passenger experience.
Perception Is Reality.
Next-gen cabin configuration requires more strategy. Before we consider time and resource investments or even return to the whiteboard (where cabin enhancements for privacy had already been underway), we have to step back for a tunnel-vision check. This is where we turn the discussion to passenger perceptions.
Panic, for the most part, has faded. Uncertainty remains. Governments, health organizations, and airline campaigns can give people the green light to fly, but the trauma of COVID has been etched on our collective psyche. Social responsibility has fallen on the shoulders of businesses and individuals. People are asking themselves what is and is not okay, with some answers being formalized in new “on-board etiquette” policies. Still, with the COVID-19 trauma so fresh, the mental image of being enclosed in a tube filled with strangers can evoke anxiety.
As designers, we’d prefer not to dwell on a pre-pandemic “normal,” and instead focus on improving experiences based on current and future needs. New social norms are uncharted territory, social distancing as the prime example. Passenger density and reducing exposure to crew members are undoubtedly concentrations of forthcoming cabin designs. Mitigating the spread of droplets in enclosed spaces is central to studies underway. However, the degree to which these objectives overlap with current social distancing standards is uncertain; so, too, is the shelf-life of its associated research.
"Before delving into spatial considerations onboard, we should examine whether or not social distancing will remain a permanent part of post-pandemic life."
Regardless of new implementations, perception management is key. Transparency and communication can ease passenger anxiety and restore trust. Pre-pandemic, “PPE” wasn’t a part of everyday vernacular. Likewise, passengers haven’t historically been interested in the functional details of the cabin environment. Now, in contrast to the inattentiveness during pre-take-off safety demos, we’re confident that ears are perked for knowledge of the airflow and filtration system, cleaning procedures, and other safety aspects of their carriers. Is it true that I’m breathing recycled air? It’s not. We know this. Passengers need to know, too.
So Where Is the Business?
The Red Cabin panel drew insights from China, which has seen a 60% recovery in domestic flights. Aside from the United States’, few airlines serve such a vast domestic market. Domestic markets will recover more quickly, not just because of the easing of travel restrictions, but because they can better optimize and mobilize the public.
International traffic will be slower to recover. Multilateral agreements for international travel experiences are challenging. EU airlines, for example, are part of a complex patchwork of regulations. International services aren’t flying at the rate of US carriers, but they’re watching closely and drawing insights to minimize risk, restore trust, and instill a sense of security.
COVID-19 aside, imagining the airline and aviation world a generation from now is foggy, as biofuels, flying cars, and electric-powered aircraft are within our peripheral--like regular temperature checks. There’s pandemic PTSD. But there’ve been other jolts to the winged system that have reshaped and will continue to reshape the air travel experience. Airlines and aviation have a unique metabolism. There are opportunities for positive, sustainable change. Reach out to our team at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more.