Flying the Skies of the Future

Air travel in 21st century may feature such luxuries as seats with VCRs, TVs, phones

FOR a moment put aside the volatility of the airline industry today and sit down for a flight into the future.

The year is 2010. Your Japan Airlines flight from Los Angeles to Tokyo is a triple-deck, spacious 200-seat, jumbo, hypersonic airliner. First class is known as "Joyful," executive class is "Amenity," and economy is known as "Liberty." Flight time: probably less than two hours.

You have state-of-the-art seating with your own TV, VCR, and telephone capability, and a full menu of in-flight services and information using your coded plastic card; audio speakers are built into the seat, which has push-button adjustments for wideness, tilt, recline, back support, foot rest, and controls that even turn the seat left and right.

In the Sky Salon, the conference table seats 10. At the Sky Lounge, you can choose Western, Japanese, or Chinese food. The Sky Hall offers baby-sitting and foreign-language conversation classes.

Future airline travel may well include this dazzling buffet of interactive options for passengers, outlined by the Japan Airlines 21st Century Future Technology Committee. But as inviting as these offerings may be on many long-range flights, some airline officials question whether a future of high-tech luxury is what most customers want.

"In a couple of years on a mass basis," says George Mueller, vice president of customer relations at American Airlines, "we will be able to put fully interactive systems on every seat on every plane if we want to. But does the passenger really want that?"

For more than a year, United States passengers had fax machines on transcontinental flights. "Almost no one used them," says Mr. Mueller. The same was true for computer games on international flights. "Soon you will be able to not only make a phone call from your seat, but also receive calls," he says. "But do you really want everybody in the world to be able to call you at your seat? Nobody has come to grips with this yet. And if you add all this stuff [to airlines], somebody has to pay for it."

According to the Federal Aviation Administration, the number of passenger airplanes in the US will increase from 6,000 to 10,000 by 2010 as more people travel more and more. International traffic is expected to grow 7 percent annually between now and l994.

Some of the new planes will probably be hypersonic, long-range jets with emphasis on comfort. The "Orient Express" is being developed by the US to fly from New York to Hong Kong in about two hours. France is designing a Concorde II that would fly twice as far as the present Concorde. And Airbus, a European aircraft consortium, is studying the development of a 600- to 700-seat airplane with a triangular configuration.

Since the US deregulated airlines in l978, and because the economy has faltered in the last five years, airlines have been more inclined to focus on sheer survival than on detailed future plans. A number of airlines have gone bankrupt.

"We are going through tough times now," says Joe Hopkins, a spokesman for United Airlines. "We lost over $300 million last year, and the first quarter of this year isn't off to a good start. Airlines have to deal with the here and now so we can be in good shape for tomorrow."

The here and now is what the airline passenger wants in order to be a satisfied customer hasn't changed over the years. According to a 1991 report by the management-consulting firm of Towers Perrin, which surveyed hundreds of airline managers, customers want on-time departure and arrival, courteous service, and accurate baggage hand- ling, all at a reasonable cost, no matter what the length of the flight.

"We are in the service business," says Mr. Hopkins,"and that's the battleground right now."

Airlines refer to the space a passenger occupies, particularly on international flights, as a "nest." Because he or she will be in the "nest" for 10 or 12 hours, the airline wants to maximize comfort with pillows and blankets and amenities. "The customer wants control over this space," says Mueller, "but the hardest thing about designing an airline seat is taking into account that anybody could be sitting in it of any size."

Seats in first class and business class on most flights are always wider and more comfortable than seats in coach class. "In short-haul markets," says Mueller, "what the customer wants is basic transportation at the lowest price. You're not concerned about building a nest. People want a Coke or a cup of coffee. They want a convenient schedule, and they want to get there on time."

Mueller expects major improvements will be made in restrooms on long flights. "The customer needs more of a hotel version of a lavatory," he says, "a place to change clothes comfortably, a place to sit. If you've been flying all night you're going to want to get up and shave or put on makeup."

But bigger restrooms mean fewer seats. "Anytime you don't put a seat someplace," he says, "it costs the airline money. But I think the customer wants a lavatory with more room in it."

Aside from carrying luggage out of the airport, baggage handling is already on its way toward full computerization with many airlines. "Using computer technology we have automatic bag tag printers," says Hopkins, "to speed the passenger check-in. On the ticket we can put a lot information about the passenger, his itinerary, meal preferences, etc., and put it into our financial department."

In the area of safety and baggage handling, Fred Farrar, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration, says that a thermal neutron analyzer is being used to check baggage for explosives at JFK airport in New York City. The device is able to spot traces of nitrogen, present in almost all explosives.

"Whether we go that route in airports has yet to be determined," he says. "We're also looking at a derivative of the CAT-scan technique, but no decision has been made yet."

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