On Business and Design Considerations of 1st Class Airplane Seating

David Owen, writing in The New Yorker, in a cleverly titled article “Game of Thrones,” describes the business and design considerations of seats in modern-day airplanes. While the economy seating is fairly routine (cramped), there is a lot of creativity involved in how 1st class and business seating is designed and built:

Airplane interiors are even more tightly regulated. Nearly every element undergoes a safety-enhancing process called “delethalization”: seats have to withstand an impact equal to sixteen times the force of gravity, and to remain in place when they do, so that they don’t block exit routes or crush anyone, and they can’t burst into flames or release toxic gases when they get hot. Doing something as simple as slightly increasing the thickness of the padding in a seat cushion can necessitate a new round of testing and certification, because a more resilient seat could make a passenger bounce farther after an impact, increasing the risk of injury caused by turbulence or a hard landing. Delethalizing some premium-class seats—in which a passenger’s head and torso have a lot of room to accelerate before being stopped by something solid—requires the addition of a feature that many passengers don’t even realize is there: an air bag concealed in the seat belt.

This bit about how expensive video-back video screens is fascinating:

In economy, the tight spacing of the seats makes air bags mostly unnecessary. But seat-back video screens and the hard frames that surround them pose a safety challenge, partly because of the potential for injuries caused by head strikes, and partly because the computers and the electrical systems that serve them have to be both fireproof and fully isolated from the plane’s—so that crossed wires in somebody’s seat don’t allow a ten-year-old playing a video game to suddenly take control of the cockpit. Largely as a result, in-flight entertainment systems are almost unbelievably expensive. The rule of thumb, I was told, is “a thousand dollars an inch”—meaning that the small screen in the back of each economy seat can cost an airline ten thousand dollars, plus a few thousand for its handheld controller.


The article mentions but doesn’t link to the TheDesignAir’s Top 10 International Business Classes of 2014 (it’s well worth a look).

Why Airport Security Is Broken—And How To Fix It

More than a decade after 9/11, it is a national embarrassment that our airport security system remains so hopelessly bureaucratic and disconnected from the people whom it is meant to protect… So writes Kip Hawley, the former head of the Transportation Security Administration, in a must-read piece in The Wall Street Journal.

The main obstacle is at the front lines:

It is here, at the front lines, where the conundrum of airport security is in sharpest relief: the fear of missing even the smallest thing, versus the likelihood that you’ll miss the big picture when you’re focused on the small stuff.

Clearly, things needed to change. By the time of my arrival, the agency was focused almost entirely on finding prohibited items. Constant positive reinforcement on finding items like lighters had turned our checkpoint operations into an Easter-egg hunt. When we ran a test, putting dummy bomb components near lighters in bags at checkpoints, officers caught the lighters, not the bomb parts.

Kip Hawley concludes:

Looking at the airport security system that we have today, each measure has a reason—and each one provides some security value. But taken together they tell the story of an agency that, while effective at stopping anticipated threats, is too reactive and always finds itself fighting the last war.

Hawley finishes the piece with five suggestions on what TSA could do to improve the airport security process. I, for one, am looking forward to the day when I can board a plane with my water bottle.

Fasting to Beat Jet Lag

A team from Harvard and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston has concocted an elegant remedy to combat jet lag: the anti–jet lag fast. The international traveler, they counsel, can avoid jet lag by simply not eating for twelve to sixteen hours before breakfast time in the new time zone.

According to the Harvard team, the fast works because our bodies have, in addition to our circadian clock, a second clock that might be thought of as a food clock or, perhaps better, a master clock. When food is scarce, this master clock suspends the circadian clock and commands the body to sleep much less than normally. Only after the body starts eating again does the master clock switch the circadian clock back on.

The master clock probably evolved because when our prehistoric forebears were starving, they would have been tempted in their weakness to sleep rather than forage for the food they needed to survive. Today, when a traveler suspends his circadian clock before flying from Los Angeles to London, and then reactivates it upon breaking the fast, the clock doesn’t know that it should still be on Pacific Time. It knows only that the breakfast and the daylight declare morning in Mayfair, and it resets the body’s rhythms accordingly.


(via Harpers. Note: this story isn’t new).

Testing the Boeing 787 Dreamliner

The new Boeing 787 Dreamliner is supposed to revolutionize air travel. It promises a better cabin climate, less airsickness, reduced jet lag, fewer headaches…and even babies that may not cry as much. The Wall Street Journal put these claims to the test in a recent flight from Tokyo to Frankfurt.

Boeing points to design changes both inside and out of the cabin that make for a better ride. With a body largely constructed of super-strong plastics—carbon-fiber composite material—instead of aluminum, the 787 can have higher cabin humidity since rust isn’t a worry. The humidity level in the Dreamliner cabin is 10% to 15%, compared with 4% to 7% typical in other airplanes. But 15% is still extremely dry—about the same relative humidity as the average summer afternoon in Las Vegas, according to meteorological data.

The cabin is pressurized to a lower altitude than conventional jets, lessening the effects of being high in the air, such as headaches and fatigue, because of a 6% improvement in oxygen absorbed by the body at 6,000 feet compared with 8,000 feet. Studies show big windows help reduce motion sickness, Boeing said, and LED lighting that can simulate sunrise, for example, can help ease jet-lag effects.

A new aircraft stability system that will make for smoother rides in turbulence is still only partially functional in the five 787s in service, but an updated software load planned within weeks will improve the ride even more, according to the aircraft maker. Fuel efficiency and emissions are 20% better than the Boeing 767, a similarly sized jet.

And the personal takeaways from Scott McCartney, the author of the WSJ piece:

I flew from Tokyo to Frankfurt on Feb. 3 and could feel the Dreamliner differences. My contact lenses didn’t dry out as much as they usually do on long flights; same for my nose. I only slept an hour, partly because a nearby infant wailed several times during the night, even though the Dreamliner is supposed to lessen air-pressure pain in babies. Still, I wasn’t dragging as much as I usually am after sleepless overnight trips.

Small details do make a difference. The plane comes standard with individual air vents over passengers, something that is rarely found on wide-body jets. That gives each passenger more control of air flow and temperature. And the large 787 window offered a beautiful panoramic view of Tokyo on departure.

The Dreamliner ranks as the fastest-selling commercial jet in history, with 59 airlines around the world ordering 870 of them. The Dreamliner should start appearing at U.S. airports later this year.

Why Must Fliers Turn Off Electronic Devices on Flights?

Nick Bilton has a post in today’s New York Times rationalizing how airline rules that are decades old persist on flights without evidence that they should be enforced. In particular: why must you be required to turn off your iPhone or Kindle during take-off and landing?

According to the F.A.A., 712 million passengers flew within theUnited States in 2010. Let’s assume that just 1 percent of those passengers — about two people perBoeing 737, a conservative number — left a cellphone, e-reader or laptop turned on during takeoff or landing. That would mean seven million people on 11 million flights endangered the lives of their fellow passengers.

Yet, in 2010, no crashes were attributed to people using technology on a plane. None were in 2009. Or 2008, 2007 and so on. You get the point.

Surely if electronic gadgets could bring down an airplane, you can be sure that the Department of Homeland Securityand the Transportation Security Administration, which has a consuming fear of 3.5 ounces of hand lotion and gel shoe inserts, wouldn’t allow passengers to board a plane with aniPad or Kindle, for fear that they would be used by terrorists.


Les Dorr, a spokesman for the F.A.A., said the agency would rather err on the side of caution when it comes to digital devices on planes.

He cited a 2006 study by the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics, a nonprofit group that tests and reports on technical travel and communications issues. The group was asked by the F.A.A. to test the effects of cellphones, Wi-Fi and portable electronic devices on planes.

Its finding? “Insufficient information to support changing the policies,” Mr. Dorr said. “There was no evidence saying these devices can’t interfere with a plane, and there was no evidence saying that they can.”

Despite the evidence, this practice of turning off electronics continues. The reasoning is unclear. But this smart comment in the post makes sense:

From what I understand, a big reason that people are still asked to turn off devices is because the biggest change of an emergency situation is during take-off and landing. Forcing people turn off their devices during this time is supposed to keep everyone more alert and paying better attention if something were to happen.

And another comment provides food for thought:

I don’t want to be on the one flight that proves they do interfere when it crashes. 

For now, I am happy to oblige in turning off my electronics during take-off and landing, even if my neighbor doesn’t.

What do you think? Is the precaution to turn off electronic devices unnecessary?

Behind the Scenes at LAX

A good piece in Los Angeles Times on the ins-and-outs of how LAX, the world’s seventh busiest airport, is run:

Terminals 4 and 5 are where mega-players American and Delta lease space from the Los Angeles World Airport and, by virtue of their size, run these areas as if they were their own.

Then there are Terminals 1, 2 and 3, co-ops really, where smaller airlines share what feels like a shoe box.

Annual passenger volume is still below what it was before 9/11: 61 million now, 67 million then. Yet the airport, which is celebrating 50 years of jet travel, makes more than $100 million in profit annually on fees it charges airlines to use its facilities.

It sounds like the airport is run like a governmental agency:

Open since December, the Airport Response Coordination Center, or ARCC, is the airport’s central nervous system. Operators here control the stoplights outside the terminals to regulate vehicle flow. From here, an incident desk deploys plumbers to the flood in a restroom in Terminal 2 or a leaky water fountain in Terminal 3.

In a smaller room steps away, a police officer checks hundreds of surveillance cameras that monitor entrances, checkpoints and runways. Zooms in, zooms out, tilts down, pans left. What’s he looking for? Anomalies. Anything that doesn’t make sense in the normal flow of a gigantic airport.

I’d be very interested to read profiles of other major airports, such as that of Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson, New York’s JFK, or Tokyo’s Narita.


(hat tip: @matthiasrascher)