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12 February 2009

Ideas: Improving air travel

Slideable rows of airplane seats
1. Anyone who has flown economy class knows that legroom or the space between seats is a premium. Those who fly regularly also know that often, the plane is not full, especially in the recession now. So, for competitive reasons among airlines, why not consider sliding seats that can be slid forward or backward like car front seats, to create more legroom or space between rows? This could give economy class flyers as much legroom as business or first class. Of course, to preserve business and first class status, economy class passengers would probably not know whether they will have extra legroom until they check in, since this depends on the fullness or otherwise, of the flight. Since there are likely more economy passengers than can be given this extra legroom, this extra legroom can be charged extra at the point of check in upon the request of the passenger, meaning extra revenue for the flight that would otherwise be wasted.

2. Since some flights stopover at various airports along a route, a flight could depart half empty but become full at the next stopover airport en route, so this idea would be a little more complicated for flights that have a stopover in between, but non-stop flights would surely be able to implement this, which would add to the attraction of non-stop flights vs flights with 1 or more stopovers. But flights that stopover can also easily ask all its passengers to disembark from the plane and engineers easily slide the rows of seats back to their original configurations, although this would mean a passenger cannot be charged the extra if the flight does not give him the full extra legroom all the way to his destination.

3. Practically, I had, in an earlier email, discussed a Flexible Interiors Concept for the AirBus A380 but it was probably too ambitious, so never implemented. Today, I would like to suggest that in economy class, just alternate rows of seats in the middle section between aisles be slideable. This would be easy to do because only every alternate row in the middle section of economy class be changed to slideable fastenings onto the floor. Thus, the centre of gravity of the plane and its loads distribution would be little changed by the slidings of these rows.

4. So, just before a flight, engineers would board the plane with simple hydraulic levers, loosen the bolts fastening these slideable rows of seats, and push them forward or backward a foot or so, so that every alternate row of seats in the mid section of the economy class would then enjoy this extra legroom. This would be easy to do and not change the loads distribution of the plane much. At the next stop, whether a stopover airport or final destination airport, other engineers could slide these rows back if desired, also very easily and quickly.

5. Airlines offering this chance of more legroom -- if enough seats are unoccupied -- would thus enjoy a very competitive advantage, and gain much advertising and marketing bragging points. They can even claim or allude that the extra legroom makes for easier and faster evacuation in an emergency, and therefore safer. The extra fee would also be nice in these recessionary times.

Seatback webcam in monitor display

6. There are only a limited number of toilets onboard every plane due to costs but many passengers queue for a toilet for no other reason than to check their hairdo or to comb their hair and smarten up before landing. These passengers can avoid going to the toilet to do these if they have a mirror in front of them, fixed to the back of the seat in front, exactly in the position of the screen display used for watching movies. Glass mirrors cannot be used for safety reasons.

7. So, a tiny webcam and microphone like in most PCs nowadays should be fitted to the movie screen display. This webcam and mike costs little and can be fitted to the next upgrade of the screen monitor, or straightaway for new planes. The development cost is very low. The webcam mike may be too noisy if used, so a better option would be to give a mike built in to the headset currently used for private listening to the movies. This extra mike plus headset costs just a few US dollars.

8. This webcam would operate exactly like any pc webcam. It would show the passenger's face right in the display, like a virtual mirror. The passenger should be able to zoom in or zoom out his image, to better smear on lipstick or study a pimple even. The flight attendants would have given each passenger 2 or more plastic-sealed wet towels to wipe faces with so passengers can wipe their faces with the moist towels to freshen up and then comb their hair nicely at any time without going to the toilet to do these.

9. To further refine this webcam idea, if desired, it is possible to allow a passenger to webcam another passenger, or a flight attendant station, or even the pilot and co-pilots if really necessary. It is a simple matter of programming the code for these additional uses.

10. Another refinement, if desired, is for the flight attendants or security personnel to capture each and every face by their seatback webcam and run these faces in a face-recognition program to see if any face fits that of known and photographed criminals, or terrorists, even. This would require that a webcam can be switched on even without a passenger's knowledge to steal a look. Flight attendants can discourage or disallow passengers to block their webcam with any tape or object, etc. This Big Brother-like surveillance during the flight can be convenient for the crew to look in on any passenger without them knowing. Any suspected criminal or terrorist face can be radio-ed to the nearest ground station for futher confirmation or for more info that the crew can then check on the suspect. Computer programs can do face recognition automatically, without any human or pilot intervention.

10a. The world has witnessed the SARS scare during which thermal scanners were installed at airports to scan faces of arriving passengers for fever or higher temperatures for further checks as to whether they are carrying SARS viruses that may spread into a pandemic. This was followed by the recent bird or avian flu scare. Now, the current scare is swine flu or swine fever. The built-in webcam can also be programmed to, in addition to face recognition, also scan for fever or higher temperatures. Since this can be done many times during a flight, this can catch fevers that develop AFTER boarding the plane and is thus, far more effective. Any passenger thus scanned as having fever could then quickly be isolated or compelled to wear a mask, such as the N95 mask, to prevent or reduce infecting the other passengers and crew, who are all breathing the same [mostly] recycled air, and in close proximity. This would be superior to a hasty scan with a thermal scanner upon landing, since the queues are long and the tired passengers want to clear immigration as soon as possible. Airports will still need to scan, but as a second line of defence, while the onboard scanning on the plane would be the primary, and superior, defence.

Seatback airbag
11. While you are designing the webcam and mike into the seatback monitor display, also consider fitting an airbag into the seatback, around the vicinity of the monitor display or behind it. Like in a car crash, this seatback airbag will blow up in a crash to cushion the impact of the passenger hitting the seatback in front. Car airbags are a proven tech so adapting one for airplane seatbacks is simple and cheap. Airlines that install this can advertise and brag about it.

12. Airbags are light enough for aircraft use since they are just air trapped in a bag which inflates in a crash. However, 1 important difference is that in a car, the blown up airbag can remain blown up but in an airplane crash, the airbag MUST immediately deflate after protecting the passenger, then be immediately pulled back into its cavity by a Retractor. Which can be a simple thin rope or elastic in a recoiler. This is to allow maximum unimpeded space for evacuation since most airplane crashes are followed by fire, even into the cabin.

Collecting luggage at destination airport
13. Currently, you check in your luggage at your departure airport, easily enough with friend, family or porter help [since check in takes place in public space accessible to all], but then have to collect it yourself at your arrival airport's luggage carousel. No one can do it for you since the carousel is situated in restricted airport space. This works well enough for most flyers but there are always some for whom this procedure is difficult.

14. For example, if you are a small-sized woman with heavy luggage, or too old to lug luggage, or too sick to, or suffer from hernia or a bad back, or are handicapped, or are a child unaccompanied by any adult, or simply so rich that you dont want to hassle with waiting at the carousel and dragging your luggage off it, then you need this new service.

15. This new service, which hopefully, will soon come to an airport near you, is to have someone wait and collect your luggage for you at the arrival airport carousel. Even load your luggage into a waiting car, taxi or limo. For a fee. Again, airports offering this will be able to advertise and brag.

16. At your departure airport, you check in your luggage as usual. This is photographed by the usual cheap ubiquitous cameras. Maybe even you, as the luggage owner, is photographed as well. These photos, together with your personal and flight details, are entered into the computer, which then sends a cellphone MMS to the MMS cellphone and/or computer, of the arrival airport's Luggage Porter [LP] service. With the name, flight details and jpgs of the luggages and owner/s, the LP can then easily collect the luggages from the carousel and hold them for collection by the owner/s when they clear Immigration at the arrival airport.

17. In some cases when there is no problem with the possibility of smuggling drugs or other contraband, or when the Immigration & Customs [I & C] has checked the luggages [which should either be left unlocked for this purpose or the number of the combination lock given to the LP] and cleared them, the LP can even load the luggages into the waiting car, taxi, limo, etc, that the owner/s has designated to him. If need be, both can talk on their cellphones to refine the arrangements or make any changes.

18. To expand on Para 16, luggages are usually tagged by barcode stickers [which may also contain RFID tags] after they are checked in, then conveyored to the luggage holding room. In unusual circumstances or a suspected bomb or contraband threat, some suspected luggage may need to be retrieved quickly for further inspection. Currently, with just barcode stickers or even with RFID tags, this is difficult. But this new service would have a jpg of every piece of luggage checked in, together with the owner/s details, so a visual glance should quickly and easily pick out the luggages by their colour, size, make, etc. Thus, for security and operational reasons, this idea would work as well.

19. For this new service to start, LPs would have to be appointed at destination airports. This can be private arrangements or private companies or individuals or groups, not necessarily an airport operation. All that is needed are MMS-capable cellphones. Indeed, as long as you have someone as an LP at your destination airport who can access the carousel, you dont even need any prior arrangement at your boarding airport because you yourself can take jpgs of your luggage, maybe also yourself for easier and quicker identification at the arrival airport [since you will be wearing the same clothes, etc], and MMS these jpgs together with your flight details, this should work fine. You can either pay the LP when you arrive or even have your meet and greet people pay him first. Best of all, once there is an LP at your destination airport, you can always phone him to make any further or unusual arrangements. Since this LP is a local and works in the airport, he can even help you with queries and info, if you are new to the airport and environs. It can be a very useful full porter service besides luggage.

20. Thus, now you need not hurry through I & C to retrieve your luggage from the carousel. You can shop, eat, or do whatever you want, secure in the knowledge that the LP has your luggage and in communication with you at any time.