Where are the radical innovations in air travel?

Middle seat big






























Last weekend I was crammed into the middle seat of a large commercial airliner. As I  gulped fetid air, clutched my overpriced airport magazine, and watched my fellow passengers coerce their bags into overhead bins, I wondered: in this age of rapid change, why is the commercial flying experience still exactly the same as it was 30 years ago?

Here is the in-flight magazine! There is the uncomfortable seat that reclines only so far! The reading light switch remains above and just out of arm’s reach. So when the flight attendant minced by and served fizzy water in a plastic cup smaller than my palm and then pitched me a metallic bag of roasted peanuts so tiny that it seemed she’d dropped a quarter by accident, I thought, wait a minute, it’s 1983!

Except that back then commercial flying did seem cutting-edge. Hot meals at 32,000 feet felt like a technological feat. Movies mid-flight felt like a miracle. And there was always that moment when we swiveled our head left and right and thought, holy cow, there are hundreds of people in this plane. We would be gripped with sudden panic, and frantically Rolodex back to our seventh grade class on Lift and Drag. But we were also proud. We trusted progress. This was only the beginning, we thought. The Wright brothers would be awed to see how far their invention had come in so little time, and in turn we waited for our future, to be awed as well.

And then nothing changed.

Oh, there have been a few tentative advances. The personal screen is one. The sleeping pods in first class is another (but not many of us can enjoy those.) The self check-in is nice. I like the purple lighting. Internet in the sky? Pretty cool. (But charge us for it? Come on.) Yet these are surface changes. The system itself is exactly the same as in the Fifties. This seems egregious. In this age of design thinking and applied technology, why hasn’t the dismal commercial flying experience been radically reformulated?

So this is my challenge to you design thinkers, technological wizards, and disappointed jetpack devotees: change it. Flying itself is all about breaking the limits – of gravity, and of our own un-winged bodies. So why hasn’t it broken the limits of your imagination? We understand that global warming might be ahead in the long line of problems to be solved. And re-envisioning something as entrenched and behemoth as the airline industry is daunting. But for the millions of us stuck in the middle seat, gamely trying to share an armrest, keep our neck in a natural position, and adjust to the wild swings in temperature with a thin blanket and a hand on the air vent, we’d sure like you to try.

Caroline Paul and Wendy MacNaughton
Caroline Paul is the author of "East Wind, Rain" and "Fighting Fire," and she co-wrote "Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation and GPS Technology" with her partner Wendy MacNaughton. MacNaughton's illustrations have appeared in The New York Times, Juxtapoz, and Print Magazine. "Lost Cat" was inspired by the curious disappearances of their beloved Tibia.
Caroline Paul and Wendy MacNaughton
Tags: Downtime,Tech Culture,Technology
  • Shubham Mittal

    Interesting article (loved the picture the most)! Although if you look closely, things do have changed a lot. The no. of seats in an airplane has increased drastically accounting for the huge influx of passengers. This has led to more and more cramming, but in such a way that it still “feels” elegant! The innovation is headed to maximize profit, but by still providing the illusion of a comfortable journey. To make the flights cheaper, meals are separately charged during the flight. If you are a little above average, you can book the special seats(near the emergency exits) at a higher price in search for a little more leg room. They have actually broken the limits of imagination. The question is “Are you watching closely?” :)