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Retooling long-haul planes for comfort

As the demand for nonstop transoceanic flights grows, so does concern about travelers' well-being. Among the solutions: larger windows and seats.

September 14, 2004|James Gilden | Special to The Times; James Gilden writes the Internet Traveler column for the Sunday Travel section. Contact him at

The next generation of long-haul airplanes will be bigger. They will be faster. They will fly farther.

But will they be more comfortable?

That's an important question for travelers concerned about seat size, entertainment options and other factors that can make marathon flights feel less like an endurance contest. In May, I flew on a Singapore Airlines A340-500 from Los Angeles to Singapore -- at the time the world's longest nonstop commercial flight -- and was in the air 16 hours and 42 minutes. That record fell the following month when the same airline launched a New York-to-Singapore route, a flight that clocked 18 hours in the air.

Boeing is responding to the demand for longer nonstop fights with the 777-200LR, a longer-range version of its popular 777. With a full complement of cargo and passengers, the 777-200LR, expected to be in the air by 2006, will fly nearly 10,000 miles before needing to refuel.

"Transoceanic routes are where the money is going to be made," said Terry Trippler, who follows the airline industry for travel search engine SideStep. "That's the next battleground, and it's going to be about comfort and services. A bag of peanuts won't cut it from Los Angeles to Tokyo."

New planes will help "redefine intercontinental travel," said Henry Harteveldt, vice president of research in San Francisco for Forrester Research, a Cambridge, Mass.-based technology consulting firm.

The double-decked 555-passenger Airbus A380, expected to be in service in spring 2006, and the sleek 257-passenger Boeing 7E7 Dreamliner, expected to begin service in 2008, incorporate new technologies and interior design to make long-haul flights less grueling physically and more pleasant psychologically.

Aircraft in service on long-haul routes are being modified too -- and with good reason.

"Flight used to be magical, and it's not anymore," said Chris Grames, Boeing marketing director of interiors and revenue. Recycled air, cramped seats and claustrophobic cabins become more serious issues as flight times stretch to 18 hours or more.

Boeing and Airbus designers, however, are working on solutions. Larger windows, more spacious seats and better ventilation hold the promise of more comfort. Here are some of the improvements in the works:

* Windows: While developing its 7E7 Dreamliner cabin, Boeing gauged how differences in window size affected test subjects' perceptions of the plane.

"Each day we changed the windows and recorded their feelings for spaciousness and feel of the cabin," Grames said, adding that subjects were not told about the window changes.

Not surprisingly, passengers preferred cabins with large windows. On the 7E7, windows will be 19 inches tall and 11 inches wide, 31% bigger than 767 or 777 windows. They will allow more natural light into the cabin, enhancing the appearance of the interior as well as connecting passengers with the outside environment. Window shades will be electronic. Even aisle seats will have a view outside.

"We are visual creatures," Grames said. "Being in a tube where you can't see outside makes people feel confined. Just knowing where you are at in relation to the Earth and sky outside adds comfort."

* Lighting: Artificial lighting effects are already used to enhance the flight experience. Airbus' long-range aircraft, including the A340-500, have more than 60 light settings, including different color combinations and brightness. Lighting controls are localized, so one section of the cabin can be lighted differently from another; that way, first class can be dimmed after dinner even when bright light is needed in coach because passengers there are still eating.

On the Singapore Airlines A340-500 I flew to Singapore, different colors were used to represent different moods or times of day. At night, the ambient lighting was blue. In the darkness of morning, the lights turned pinkish, like the first rays of a rising sun.

"Lighting helps create the perception of greater space," said Grames, whose company is experimenting with ways to trick the human eye into perceiving more space, something that's accomplished partly by eliminating shadows. The 7E7 also will feature lighting that simulates the night sky.

* Architecture: The natural appeal of a well-proportioned space helps explain why many passengers on 747s prefer the smaller upper deck over the larger lower one.

"The upper deck has less space, but passengers like it because they feel like they have their own well-proportioned cabin," Grames said.

Designers of the 7E7 are trying to avoid the tube effect -- the feeling of being trapped in a claustrophobic cylinder -- by using arches to proportion the cabin space more effectively. Curved surfaces also contribute to the sense of proportion.

Even the entryway on the 7E7 has been designed to be welcoming. High, lighted ceilings and arches seem to sweep you inside.

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