As regular readers of this blog will know, I spend quite a bit of time in airports and on planes. So I tend to get an early look at what’s coming up in the ever-changing world of travel. I was fortunate enough to be among the first to experience the Singapore Airlines lie-flat bed (a total redefinition of what it means to sleep in the sky) and I was also one of the first to fly on the double-decker A380 (a bit of an anti-climax really: once inside, it was another plane, just like any other). And about a year ago, I accidentally wound up enjoying an in-flight shower (see my previous post The Mile High Spa).
Then just this past week I read that one airline is planning to enhance the travel experience by introducing 3D virtual reality systems for First Class passengers. All of which got me to thinking: what other new stuff is out there that intrepid travelers can look forward to? So here they are: my list of the top nine soon-to-be-here “advances” in air travel.
One: People-Free Check-In
I understand that airlines need to make money. I also understand that human employees cost money. And I even understand that we live in a world where mundane tasks like checking into a flight can mostly be managed by machines. But I recently encountered (the limitations of) a totally human-free check in. And I don’t mean a few manned service desks outnumbered by a lot of automated check-in machines. I mean there were exactly zero manned service desks and not a single human being in the check-in area, apart from one rather overworked lady who looked utterly helpless attempting to “assist” the five hundred or so people trying to check-in. All of which would have been fine, until the system flat-out rejected my children for check-in, on account of the fact that their booking was not linked to mine, and hence the machine had decided they were unaccompanied minors who couldn’t be checked in without an adult present. It took 45 minutes and a trip to a dingy back-room office before someone was able to over-ride the machine and get us all seats on the plane. Where, oh where, have all the humans gone?
Two: In-Flight Mobile Service
It has been coming a long time, but thanks to the wonders of in-flight wifi and enhanced technology, more and more airlines now allow you to use your mobile phone while aloft. So the one and only place on earth that until now has been a mobile-phone free zone is no longer that. No more peace and quiet for a few hours; no more blissful disconnection from the worries of home or the office. And even if you choose to preserve the cocoon of inflight silence for yourself and keep your phone turned off, you can be damned sure your fellow passengers won’t. Indeed, only last week I had to listen to some overly-whiney American dickhead jabber on for forty minutes about his upcoming prostate surgery. It was so irritating I was almost tempted to perform said surgery on him myself, then and there. Airborne talkie-time is here people, so get used to it.
Three: In-seat Tinder
In 2012, KLM introduced an innovative service called “Meet & Seat”. Based on Facebook or Linked-In profiles, passengers in business class can select who they sit next to, the concept being that this is a nifty way to expand professional networks. The service has been pretty successful, with over 50,000 people registering for it so far. But even that has quickly become old-hat. Recently, an App called Wingman was announced, scheduled for release later this year. Using the aforementioned onboard wifi networks and a Tinder-like interface, passengers can search through profiles of eligible “playmates” on board their flight, and then “match-up” by swiping right or left, for “yes” or “no”. A case of the Mile High Club joining the App Age, I guess. Although no amount of technology can address the obvious physical limitations that hooking up on a plane might present. At least for now … (see my previous post on this important subject: Up in the Air).
Four: Funny Safety Videos
It doesn’t matter how often you fly, some things are immutable in the air. Like the safety briefing video that is screened at the start of each flight, to remind you that in the event of emergency an oxygen mask will drop from the ceiling and could you please brace yourself calmly just prior to the plane slamming into the ocean at high speed. Yeah, right. Perhaps realizing the pointlessness of these videos, some forward thinking airlines have started using them as an opportunity to entertain and amuse instead. Like Delta Airlines, who recently released a safety video packed with gags, like a pizza chef storing a pizza in the overhead locker (watch here). Or like Air New Zealand, pioneers in the amusing inflight video category, where a whole series of safety videos are presented by various Hobbits and other characters from Middle Earth (watch here). Or another Air NZ video featuring real-life flight crew completely naked, apart from some cleverly used body paint (watch here). And my favorite: a budget Israeli airline that has turned the whole safety briefing video into a cheesy musical number, complete with lead singer and gyrating dancers and appalling lyrics. It is so bad, it’s like a mash-up of the ten worst Eurovision entries ever (trust me: you want to see this one – watch here).
Five: Live Entertainment
If amusing safety videos aren’t enough for you, look no further than the king of crazy whacky innovations, Richard Branson. On select flights operated by Virgin in the UK, Sir Dick has apparently recently approved the introduction on live entertainment. That is, comedians and musicians who will wander the aisles of the plane, entertaining the passengers. “Acts will be announced soon through Virgin Atlantic’s Facebook and Twitter channels, but flight details will remain a secret—making this a truly one-of-a-kind experience,” is how the airline has announced the service. Crazy, yes, but then again, what do you expect from a fellow whose previous highlights include inflight massages and ice-cubes in the shape of his own face. And who himself once donned a female flight attendant uniform and served drinks on one of his planes to unsuspecting passengers. While at the same time the plane’s sound system pumped out Aerosmith’s “Dude looks like a Lady”. Enough said…..
Six: Bizarre Retail
When was the last time you looked at the Duty Free Catalogue in the seat pocket in front of you? If you are anything like me, the answer is probably never, unless you were bored beyond belief, forgot to buy a gift for someone meeting you at the other end, or had left your phone charger at home and only realized that after takeoff. Airlines know this and so many are now ramping up the weirdness factor of the stuff they sell on board, to try to get you to at least read the damn magazine. Like Skymall (catalogue found on several major American airlines) which has lately been offering things as bizarre as Yeti garden gnomes, dog robots, a vacuum cleaner specifically designed for catching flies, and designer pet clothes (although obviously not with much effect – I read that Skymall has just filed for bankruptcy). But the global champion for this hails from none other than tiny Latvia. There, for the last four years, AirBaltic has been trialing sales of everything weird and wonderful in its Duty Free. From bike rentals to, tickets to hot shows; from branded shoes (available in flight, for size checks) to and cars. Yep, you heard me: cars, of the full-size park-them-in-the-garage sort. Although presumably delivery takes place at a location other than your seat just prior to landing.
Seven: The Fart Pillow
Here’s a little known fact that explains something we all know to be true: the amount of intestinal gas produced in the human gut triples at 25,000 feet, due to the change in pressure, and thus explaining why people fart more on planes. Rising to the challenge, an American company has now developed a pillow that, using carbon-filter technology, allegedly absorbs the smell and muffles the sound. Sheer genius, don’t you think? I for one think it should become law that these are absolutely compulsory on every single flight from now on.
Eight: What’s First-Class?
Private First-Class suites, replete with lounge rooms and showers, have only been on offer for about three years. But already they are not good enough for some. So what’s next? Well, one global hotel chain has recently leased its own plane, and is kitting it out to become a flying hotel. Seriously, a flying hotel, where guests will “check-in” and enjoy a 24 day all-inclusive “Tour around the World” that takes in places like Hawaii, Bora Bora, and Istanbul. Apparently the waiting list for a spot is already full. Proving that way more people than you’d think are willing to drop $120,000 for a plane ride, even if it is for a 3-week long one ….
Nine: Ice-Cream Sundaes
For many years, my experience has been that when it comes to food, airlines have over-complicated things in a misguided effort to impress. I mean, we all know that the food on a plane is pre-cooked and essentially microwaved to order. So serving up a Beef Wellington with truffle roasted potatoes, or a crepe-suzette with caramelized orange glaze is really a case of the airlines kidding themselves – it might be good, but it’s never going to be like the real thing. That is, until a few weeks ago, when a flight attendant came down the aisle pushing a cart on which were three tubs of ice-cream, bananas and cut fruits, and assorted syrups and sprinkles. Ingredients she then used to assemble me a towering, super-yum ice-cream sundae. I was ecstatic – so fun, so unexpected – and best of all, it tasted just like an ice-cream sundae down on earth. I guess because it was exactly the same thing as an ice-cream sundae down on earth. Duh. I honestly can’t say why no-one has ever thought of this simple yet masterful idea before, but I sincerely hope that in-flight ice-cream sundaes become standard airline food, real soon.
So there you have them: some welcome and some not-so-welcome inflight innovations, which if they haven’t reached you yet, are coming. Don’t say you weren’t warned.