Archive for May, 2010
The ever-increasing number of individuals around the globe who are over-sized for the average airline seat will have a major impact on aircraft interior design. Two separate trends in body types, the larger passenger and the taller passenger, will require that airlines revisit their design approach and focus on people centred innovation to provide solutions.
Obesity, as measured by medical professionals in terms of BMI (Body Mass Index) and the prevalence of taller people are an undeniable part of our future. Trends also show that this very BMI may have a flaw in the future, due to the fact that some people are now growing taller than their ancestors. In some cultures, primarily Asian and South American, there have been dramatic changes that are beginning to be seen by medical professionals.
While there is a lot of discussion around the core reason for these changes, that is not as important to the commercial airline industry as what to do with the changing size and shapes of passengers. Some carriers already have a policy about “obese” passengers, but they are defined by a set of inconsistent factors. One of the more common measurements (and one that got a certain amount of notoriety from actor Kevin Smith while attempting to fly Southwest Airlines) is if a passenger “can comfortably lower the armrest”. I am relatively confident that this will be an issue in years to come.
Airlines and Obese Passengers
Another common policy that airlines follow is to have larger passengers purchase two seats on a flight, or to pay to upgrade their travel to another cabin. As capacity reduction continues to put some pressure on the ability of airlines to deliver these seats on short notice, there will also be a need to identify passengers ahead of the flight. This has some potential legal and social implications that may be unpalatable to most carriers.
Often lost in this discussion is the comfort of other passengers who are sharing the space with the obese passenger. There is a potential customer service issue for airlines as other passengers potentially complain about the loss of personal space already at a premium.
There are potential issues around aircraft safety, as passengers changing shape and sizes may cause some to question if some aircraft emergency exits are even accessible to these individuals.
What can airlines do for Super-size Passengers?
What new innovations are available to carriers to deal with this evolving need in all classes of service? There are some changes with so called “sliding seats” that may allow for airlines to offer slight adaptations to seat size. However, these represent safety challenges with the size of the aisle being potentially reduced.
I believe that there are not commercially available economy seats to deal with this issue, as airlines do not fell that they need or want to invest in this area of development. I believe that a more proactive approach is called for, and developing adjustable seating or even select seating that is truly wider will offer both passengers and airlines a better solution to addressing this emerging “mega-trend”.
At the same time, there are premium seating solutions in forward cabins that do make flying more comfortable for people of all sizes. However, these may be economically unfeasible for many passengers. In this case, I do see a day where additional potential legal challenges may be faced by air carriers in places like the USA by an obese person who may claim that their size is due to a disability and is therefore protected by law. Carriers will need to proactively examine the potential range of solutions that could be available.
Airlines and the Taller Passenger
In a completely separate issue, there is obviously better news for taller passengers and travel on some airlines. Some airlines have a gate control policy that allows them to “gate control” the seats with more legroom for passengers they feel could benefit from the additional space.
There are also a number of carriers offering “extra legroom” or “premium seats” in the economy cabin. That said, some carriers also charge for these seats, which some taller passengers may feel is unfair. In addition, with the increase in Low Cost Carriers (LCCs) over the last decade, there has also been ever so slight erosion in seat pitch (the distance between one row and the next). This presents the taller passenger with comfort challenges, but may give some carriers an advantage with this segment of the traveling public.
What can airlines do for taller passengers?
For this particular trend, most carriers have a product that is already available in their economy class, including on some smaller regional jet services. Overall, while there may be an increase in demand for more legroom in economy class, I do not foresee airline economics allowing for what American Airlines used to refer to as “More Room throughout Coach”- a product that offered the entire cabin more space.
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If you are you interested in knowing more about this subject, here are a few links that talk about the core of the issue and offer additional insight on the causes and social impacts in a broader sense:
Inside Government Workshop on Obesity
US National Institute (NIH) of Health on Obesity
Air Travel and Our Ageing Population
One of the most intriguing social and economic topics that will have a major impact on the future of most nations, regardless of geography, is the issue of an increasingly ageing population.
What is significant about this trend is that in the next twenty years the population over the age of 65 will at least double in most industrialised nations. These numbers are unprecedented in all of human history, and the demands and needs of this market segment will likely impact airport and airline operations.
While the population is ageing, it does not necessarily mean that they are doing so in quite the same way as previous generations. Medical advances and social and financial drivers are keeping people fitter longer, extending their overall health and mobility well past that of previous generations. In many nations, the average retirement age for both men and women is rising and this can occasionally be linked to a change in the social contract between individuals, their company’s retirement plan, and structured national social support for the aged.
One of the most likely impacts to airlines may be those who currently classify themselves in the “Low Cost Carrier” (LCC) category. With a focus on quick turnaround times and often utilising second-tier airports from forward and aft exits on a hard stand, they stand to lose the most from a changing passenger demographic. This is particularly true in the European sector of the airline business, as in the United States the prevalence of jet-bridges is more widespread.
Onboard the aircraft there may be a number of design changes that need to be considered to accommodate this new passenger demographic.
These could include:
- The installation of new or additional moveable aisle armrests to facilitate access to seats, particularly in economy class
- The installation of new or additional power outlets on long haul aircraft to accommodate the use of a growing number of medically necessary devices (such as respiratory support devices, etc.)
- The addition of larger, more accessible lavatories on the aircraft. With ongoing current security restrictions on passenger cabin movement, there may be a requirement for both forward and aft accommodation.
- The study of one-touch, or motorised, retractable tray tables and IFE devices in bulkhead seating. Often these can be challenging for some passengers to deploy.
In addition to cabin changes, there may also be a number of changes recommended for In-Flight Entertainment (IFE) devices. These may include updates such as:
- The ability for the passenger to manipulate the font size of a subtitle on a safety video or entertainment programme
- The opportunity for a passenger to use their blue-tooth enabled hearing aid devices to interface with the IFE without the potentially invasive insertion of ear buds
Operationally, there are also a number of challenging issues for the industry in regards to a mobile ageing population.
These could include:
- Safe accommodation and gate check delivery of a growing number of sophisticated mobility devices (such as “scooters”) to enable passenger the maximum of personal mobility without additional assistance. In association with this change, there may need to be an overall review of “checked luggage liability” associated with these high-value devices.
- For those who do not have access to personal mobility devices, there could be an increased demand of airline staff on the ground and in the air to support and assist customers through all aspects of their journey.
These are just a few of our thoughts on how this particular segment of the travelling public may influence the future of aircraft interiors, airport procedures and carrier policies.
If you would like to know more about this subject, or any other in our series, please feel free to contact us
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We can also recommend this link for The European Union Statistical Office
According to Eurostat, the EU’s statistical analysis unit, in the year 2060 over 30% of the entire population of the European Union will be over the age 65. In 2008, Eurostat reported the same population was at 17.1%