10 Ways To Improve The Flying Experience Outside Of The Plane

Sunday, April 6, 2014

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On my way to a recent flight, while I was frantically putting my shoes back on among a pushy crowd in that tiny space past the scanning machine, my mind began to wander from its immediate train of thought (which, at that moment, included a fantasy involving my shoe coming into contact with the person’s head behind me) to one that was slightly more peaceful and productive: How can the process of flying be improved outside of the plane?

It’s no secret the flying experience doesn’t exactly rate at the top of most people’s list of pleasurable activities they endure in life (tax preparation and colonoscopies are probably close runner-ups). However, I began to think there must be a number of easy, inexpensive ways the overall flight experience outside the plane could be improved, and which could help in reducing stress, adding comfort and making the task of getting from point A to point B slightly less painful than the current Hunger Games-like experience it is now.

In that spirit, here are 10 of my ideas.

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1) Improve the Scanning Machine Area

Why must the process to collect our belongings at security be so difficult? Not only does each person likely have a bag or two being scanned, but they probably have at least one or two separate bins making their way down the scanning machine conveyor belt filled with their keys, laptop, jacket, carry-ons and shoes.  After scanning, the TSA expects you to collect all of these items, organize them and be on your way — shoeless I may add — in a matter of seconds before the person’s belongings behind you comes barreling into yours.

I know this area is oftentimes restricted by the layout of the terminal, but why must everyone cram together in the same tiny space while frantically attempting to collect their things, stick their computers in their cases, put their shoes on and stuff their keys and loose change in their pockets once everything’s been scanned?

Why not extend the length of that portion of the conveyor belt to accommodate at least three or more people and their belongings? If there isn’t enough space to do that, just move up the scanning machine itself. There only needs to be space enough for one person to load their belongings at the beginning. Plus, that would likely lead to less of a logjam at the end.

Or, if it hasn’t been done already, how about every security area set up waist-high tables next to the conveyor belt? Then you can simply grab your items and quickly transfer them to an area away from the conveyor belt.

I know some terminals are simply making do with what space they have, but it would make more sense to plan the layout beginning with the exit area first, then going from there.

2) Why Must I Walk So Much?

It’s the year 2014, and I was told we would have flying cars by now. Not only are we still using old-fashioned land-based cars, but we still have to walk ages just to get to our gate. Seriously, have you timed how long it takes to get to your gate from security at a major airport? If you’re at the end of the terminal, you could easily be looking at a 15-minute walk.

Myself, I don’t mind getting in as much footwork as possible before settling into a sedentary position for the next few hours, but I sincerely feel for the elderly, those with disabilities or those who happen to be running late for their flights. Sure, there are a few walking escalators here and there, but come on, they’re rarely longer than 100 feet long, so they shave off, what, 15 seconds?

When mall cops zip around on Segways and airport personnel scoot around on golf carts, why can’t we come up with a more efficient way to get people where they’re going?

How about walking escalators that are 10 times longer than the normal ones? Certain escalators could be “express” if they’re bypassing a number of gates. What about indoor trolleys that circle the terminal, slow enough to allow people to hop on and off, but quick enough to shave real time off your walk? Golf cart taxis, bike-shares, whatever, but let’s rethink the process of how we’re getting to our gates.

3) Universal Wi-Fi

I know many airports are improving their access to Wi-Fi, and a few around the world are actually implementing complimentary Wi-Fi in their terminals, but most are still dead zones in this regard.

Sure you can shell out $30 to rent Wi-Fi for a few hours by a third-party service such as Boingo or AT&T, but why would I want to? That costs as much as I pay for one month of high-speed broadband at home. My guess is the number of people who actually pay for this service a day could be counted on two hands.

The fact is, the technology is getting cheaper and easier to install. How about airports shell out the money and make it free for everyone? If the airports need the extra revenue to support the service, they can sell ad space on a few signs around the terminal, allowing companies to “sponsor” the free internet. We’re in 2014 in a developed country; there’s no excuse not to offer free, reliable internet access in our major transportation hubs.

4) Fix Zone Boarding

It’s time to do away with “zone boarding.” The truth of the matter is, allowing passengers to board according to zone is simply the most inefficient way to quickly seat everyone (which, I may add, helps with on-time departures — a goal of all airlines).

Further, as soon as one zone begins to board, every single person in every other zone begins to line up themselves, as if they risked not getting a seat if they weren’t front and center the second their zone was called. The reality is, they know the sooner they get on, the better chance they have of fitting their carry-on luggage onboard.

Why don’t all airlines board passengers randomly? A two-year study by American Airlines showed that boarding passengers by random assignment shaved three to four minutes off of boarding times. Not a huge difference, but noticeable enough to warrant change.

Or, how about boarding all window seats first, then middle seats, then the aisle, starting from the rear, like United does? I always fly by the window, and I swear to God, every single time I get to my row, both other passengers are already sitting in their seats. If window seat passengers were seated first, then the time needed for people to get up and make way for others would be eliminated.

5) Fix Ground Transportation Signage

This one applies once you’ve left the airplane and are making your way home. I’ve obtained a law degree and have traveled to over 30 countries in the past 6 years, and even I am continually perplexed and bewildered by the signage (or lack thereof) on how to exactly get from baggage claim to my destination in most cities. (God help the newbie visitor to New York City navigating the ground transportation options at one of its airports.)

The truth is, the planning that goes into airport design for the terminal section where baggage and ground transportation meet is obviously an afterthought for most architects when designing terminals. My guess is they rightly know very few baggage claim areas make their way into glossy magazines or architectural publications upon completion, so why spend much thought into their design? The reason: because it’s so crucial to the flying experience.

We may not be able to redesign airport terminals, but let’s at least improve these areas. How about mandatory kiosks in the middle of the baggage claim where staff can easily answer questions, provide maps and point out proper exits while you’re standing around for 20 minutes waiting for your bag? Sure you can refer to a sign or read a pamphlet, but nothing beats talking to a real human being for directions (especially if you can’t read the local language).

Let’s also institute some sort of universal signage system for exits: large green signs for taxis, blue for subways or trains, yellow for buses and red for parking (and let’s throw in some universal symbols for each just in case someone just happens not to speak English).

There could also be a cooperative web site that gathers all this information, so all you had to do after landing was pull up one site or app on your phone and check out your options rather than having to search each airport’s website for information.

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6) Fix Boarding Passes

Though boarding passes are increasingly going digital, the ugly truth is these paper remnants are going to be around for the next few years. So, while we’re stuck with them, how about making them somewhat readable? Information seems to be placed randomly, the text is small, and worst of all, you would never want to keep them after your flight (I, for one, would love to keep boarding passes as mementos).

The internet is rife with designers’ reimaginings of boarding passes. There’s a great design floating out there that places the flight number, gate, seat assignment and zone in large, white text against a black background in the middle of the pass, then splashes the airline’s logo colors in the background and relegates the bar code to a small section in the bottom right corner. Other designers have suggested using graphics to distinguish different information (boarding zones, seat numbers and flight time), reducing pass sizes so they would fit neatly in your wallet or adding colors and a logo to the back.

Though likely not a huge priority for airlines looking to save every penny they can, in the age of corporate homogenization, little touches like these can be the difference between a customer distinguishing one airline over another, and ultimately booking with them at the time of purchase.

7) Sell Me Services and Items at the Gate

I’m all for the airlines making more money, especially in ways that don’t impact the cost of my actual ticket. Over the last few years, airlines have done wonders improving their bottom lines by making money off of everything but putting your behind in the seat. Checked baggage, preferred seating, seating upgrades, in-flight meals, on-board entertainment, in-flight internet — you could easily rack up costs that total more than half your ticket price on just these add-ons alone, but why not offer some services that I really want and that I could purchase before I even got on the plane?

While I’m sitting at the gate using my newly free Wi-Fi, why not offer me a boatload number of ways to spend more of my money (or set up roaming kiosks that could be moved from gate to gate)? While waiting I could rent a pair of noise-canceling earphones or a premium blanket and pillow for my flight. I could also be given the chance to order a variety of different food options that could be delivered to me just in time for boarding.

What about last-minute toiletries I may need during my connection like toothpaste, a toothbrush, mouthwash, contact lens cleaner, ibuprofen, etc . . . ? The list goes on: a replacement phone charger, change of socks, baby formula, a hardcover bestseller, a back massage — these are all small items that could be sold at a premium to a captive, needy population, many of whom would be happy to pay the extra money for the convenience while they wait at their gate. Why should airlines lose out on all this potential revenue to vendors in the terminal?

8) Sleeping Chambers

This isn’t a novel idea — U.K.-based Sleepbox is a leader in this field — but why aren’t there sleeping chambers in every airport terminal?

Think of the number of flyers relegated to catnaps in uncomfortable seats during long layovers, overnight delays or during cancelled flights.

Imagine how nice it would be to rent out a small area where you could store your belongings and settle into a comfortable bed with clean bedding and no noise for a few hours. Many people would probably fork over a donation of their own plasma, let alone $50, for a couple hours to do this. There could also be noise-free private areas the size of cubicles where business people could work remotely without outside noise interference, families could congregate in private or parents could rest with their children who want to nap.

9) Reward Flyers Who Check Their Bag at the Gate

There’s an odd Kabuki-like ritual going on between airlines and passengers when it comes to checked baggage. The airlines want to charge you for checking baggage so they can boost profits, but flyers don’t want to pay the fees, so too many people bring too much baggage onto a plane with not enough space to handle it. 

The end result: airlines almost always have to make an announcement for voluntary baggage check-in at the gate to free up room.

Yes, it’s complimentary, but shouldn’t flyers be rewarded for helping the airlines in this ridiculous game?

I’ve checked my bag at the gate for every domestic fight I’ve taken in recent memory. Shouldn’t I be rewarded for doing so? Okay, I’m not donating a kidney or solving world hunger, but with my help, the airlines are able to keep up this charade and continue to reap profits for checked baggage.

Why not offer me a free upgrade for every 10 bags I check at the gate (which, in my estimation, is equal to about 2 1/2 hours of time I will spend waiting at the baggage carousel)? Or how about points, a free meal or even a Tweet thanking me? Instead, I get a luggage receipt, a curt thank you and am sent on my way.

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10) Improve Gate Seating

Finally, there’s probably no easier way for airports to improve the flying experience than simply upgrading the way we wait for planes at the gate. Stiff seating, TVs blaring CNN and lack of amenities: Why is the seating area at the gates no different than if you were at the doctor’s office? Actually, scratch that, a recent visit to my doctor revealed they’ve actually far surpassed airports in this regard.

Some improvement could be minor: electrical plugs and USB ports at every seat, mixed seating options (shared seating, recliners, foot rests, workstations) and turning off the TVs. Other improvements could be peppered throughout the gate such as personal monitors for individual entertainment options, shared desk spaces for groups to socialize or work, cafe-like seating for all those people eating while waiting at the gate and more open space for children to play.

I would suggest a designer simply spend an 8-hour day sitting at a gate with a pen and notebook and observe how people actually spend their time there waiting. My guess is they would come up with a list of about 50 other ways this area could be improved from its present, purely functional state. The above image for the “Schiphol Innovative Gate” in Amsterdam would be a good start.


Sure, improving the flying experience isn’t likely going to determine whether the millions of people that fly every day continue to do so, but small changes in the way we live our lives do make an impact on the world.

With the advancements in technology and the increase attention companies spend thinking about the customer experience to gain a competitive advantage over each other, the flying experience should not be excluded in reaping the benefits. Let’s start rethinking the flying experience outside the plane and bring back the joy of travel to all parts of the trip.


[Schiphol Innovative Gate courtesy of Philips; TSA Security Line Orlando International Airport by Michael Gray/Flickr; Boarding Pass by Tyler Thompson]

By Matt Stabile / The Expeditioner Twitter Matt Stabile Google+

Matt Stabile Bio PictureMatt Stabile is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of TheExpeditioner.com. You can read his writings, watch his travel videos, purchase the book he co-edited or contact him via email at any time at TheExpeditioner.com.

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