Air Travel: The Ultimate in Bad Design

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In the last two weeks, I flew all the way around the world.

From Taiwan to San Francisco, on to Philadelphia, Frankfurt, Toulouse, then back track Frankfurt, Philadelphia, and finally touching down in San Francisco last Friday. I was in Taiwan on a business trip working on a branding strategy project for most of July, and the first week of August I was en route to small town, South of France, for a friend's wedding. The one thing consistent on my mind is how absolutely dreadful air travel is.

How is it that we have managed to make air travel so uncomfortable, irritating, and such a hassle? I arrived to Tao Yuan Airport on Friday night well ahead of time and immediately was informed that the flight was overbooked and China Airlines was asking for volunteers to leave the next day; for our trouble we would be given 5000 TWD, which is just under $200. I politely declined, then was asked if I would be willing to take a seat on EVA Airways, which had a flight to San Francisco that departed just 10 minutes after my initial flight. I asked if they had more space on their plane, and was told that they had fewer passengers. I hesitated and the agent told me that no matter what I would have definitely have a seat that night, but it would help out a great deal if I were willing to take a seat on EVA Air.

I complied and was given a meal voucher for about 5 dollars and was told to return to the service desk at 10:30pm. While I was wandering about in the book store I overheard another customer relaying the same news on her mobile phone, the flight being overbooked etc. I ate a noodle dish, then wandered to the souvenir foods store, and made an entire lap around the terminal. I was starting to regret my agreement to take the later flight, there was nothing more to do in the departure hall, most of the shopping and exhibits were beyond security. I took a seat next to a family of four to wait – and discovered that they too were in the same kind of situation, except that their tickets were not confirmed and it was a long shot for any of them to get a seat that night. I left the waiting area as the family debated whether or not to give up and go home. The mom in the family pointed out that though usually the service desks at China Airlines were staffed with a mixture of men and women, this night, all of the desks were staffed with male representatives. Was this indicative of just how tough the situation was? They sent out their male service front to withstand irate passengers?

As I reached the service desk, there was already a small crowd of passengers haggling to get business class upgrades if they left the next day or hotel stays with transportation for the night. There was a high level of tension and confusion, every staff member was either on the phone or frantically typing into their computer terminal. A couple senior female managers were taking the reigns. When I was finally helped, I was told they would now put me on EVA Air's standby list – and I nearly flipped – I had waited all this time, and now 30 minutes to departure, I was on a standby list. More typing, more phone calls, more running back and forth between counters, and then I was asked if I would consider going to Vancouver in Business Class. Finally, a seat came through on EVA Air and I was rushed to the security door with some hasty apologies. As I sat down in my seat, next to a man that smelled of cigarettes through his skin, I thought, "Wow. I'm a total sucker." I wondered if my air mileage was going to transfer properly, and concluded that it probably wouldn't and I'd have to write China Airlines, explain, and relive the whole ordeal.

Everyone I know has a story like this, some nightmare ordeal that leaves an indelible mark on our minds about the lameness of air travel. A broken engine, a crew change, an overbooked flight, screaming babies, missed connections and on and on. My US Airways triple hop to France was not oversold, but I was asked to change to a middle seat by a pleading mother and daughter on the first leg, my entertainment console was broken on the second leg, for the third leg, a couple of kids sitting behind me engaged in a lively game of cards which meant that my seat vibrated sporadically in continuous intervals. The return triple hop was equally exhausting, with more security lines then I could have imagined. At my transfer in Frankfurt, I got in one line where some service personnel asked me some security questions, a second line so they could confirm my checked luggage, a third line through security, and then a last line to board the plane.

Flyover Channel concept by RGA's Jill Nussbaum, Ian Spalter and Cesar Marchetti
Flyover Channel concept by RGA's Jill Nussbaum, Ian Spalter and Cesar Marchetti

This year, in the I.D. Magazine Annual Design Review, I.D. asked contestants in the 'Concepts' category to ease the torture of air travel. According to the magazine, "designers didn't seem very optimistic." The Best of Category award went to Flyover Channel by R/GA. Flyover Channel is a proposed open source documentary film channel showing footage connected to a plane's location. The idea is that you can learn about the terrain you are flying over, adding a level of intrigue to the journey.

Other ideas included applying RFID tags to luggage, an information relay pager to help guide passengers needing extra travel assistance, and a smoking area that sucked in smoke exhaust and produced fresh oxygen simultaneously.

As I read over these ideas in my misery, I thought of a few more concepts that I thought would address the stress more directly. Air travel is laden with so much inefficiency, nothing short of a complete system redesign would ease all of the torture. What if there was one identity and security check that tagged you, your luggage, and your journey just once from beginning to end? Maybe the boarding ticket is a bracelet that matches gates and seats – you'll know with confidence you're sitting in the right spot. What if planes were designed more like trains, so that they would pull into stations, and enable passengers to embark and disembark in multiple locations straight from a platform? Larger windows would offer a more pleasant passing view so that we wouldn't feel as if we were confined in a cage.

What if there was never a middle seat but that seats were grouped in pairs? There would be more aisles so that the whole plane wasn't held up by the old lady with 4 personal items struggling to cram them into the overhead compartment. Bathroom capacity indicators in the terminal monitors would lead you to the closest, empty stall. And for in-flight entertainment, how about integration with the real world - now that some airlines have started to offer wifi service, how about online auctions that pertain to the destination? If you're flying to Las Vegas, bid on Cher tickets for that night, or for a round of golf the next day.

These ideas don't seem so far-fetched, do they?
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