How has technology changed planes?

Technology is changing fast – so fast that devices that were once considered the height of sophistication just 10 years ago are now obsolete. But how is that affecting the airline industry? We caught up with Jeremy Brown, a senior designer in customer experience at Virgin Atlantic to find out…

How have technological advancements changed what airlines can offer their passengers?

People's expectations of what technology means to them is very different now to what it was 10 years ago, and it's continually changing. The challenge working onboard an aircraft is that technology is several years behind where the rest of the world is with mobile phones and access to the internet. The limitations of what we're able to achieve onboard will eventually catch up with what we expect in day-to-day technology but very naturally it has to go through lots of different approval phases before we can install the technology onboard.

Virgin Atlantic led the technology 20 years ago with the introduction of individual seat-back screens. And now, people's expectations have changed - we expect everything immediately and being able to allow that to happen onboard is something that we are working on. For example, our new fleet of Boeing 787s all come WiFi enabled, which allows any passenger the opportunity to be connected all the time. As things continue to move forward, I think people's expectations will change from being able to have a monitor in the back of the seat in front. I think the technology that we will be expected to provide will become more and more integrated with individuals' devices.

But we're often the ones leading the way - another technological development that Virgin Atlantic has been at the forefront of is the introduction of moodlighting onboard our planes, back in 2002. 

Image from Virgin Atlantic

Why is moodlighting so important?

My role at Virgin Atlantic is about being the champion of the customer. And a huge part of our work revolves around things beyond the physical environment so we have to consider things about the time of the flight that a customer is taking and what effect that could have on them. 

For example, are you leaving the UK in the morning and going to the States, or are you flying back from the States over night when sleep will be more important? All of those things that the physical environment can't provide on its on, we try to create through the food or drinks that we offer, the music or the movies, right the way down to the lighting. We know just how important lighting is for being able to manipulate the physical space. 

Image by Matt Crossick/Virgin Atlantic

We can dim the lighting or change the colour and we know, through research and development, that there are certain colours of light and certain intensities of light that can really promote a certain activity during the flight. 

For example, on a morning service where customers want breakfast, we know that the lighting needs to be a warming colour but quite bright. Whereas, if people are wanting to sleep then understandably we'll dim the lighting. We also have a whole series of colour palettes that respond to elements that can make customers feel that they can sleep more appropriately as well. We know just how important that is to influencing people's perception of the experience onboard. 

But then when you start looking at the physical aspects of light, that has developed with technology over the last five or 10 years. Historically, we always put fluorescent tubes onboard that needed to be changed every few months but now LEDs are everywhere so we can remove a lot of the older lightfittings, which is lighter, more efficient and allows us more flexibility.

It's the little magic touches that go above and beyond that really enhance our service.

So as you look at the service as a whole, how do you go about designing something that will provide customers what they need?

A few years ago we did a big research project, where we basically decommissioned the whole service design so that we could apply lots of other theories to what we were doing and build it up again from scratch. 

For example, on a night-time flight, as well as having the right lighting to promote sleep, we also serve food before the lights are dimmed. And we always make sure that the food and drink we serve are foods that will help passengers sleep. On the flip side, during morning flights we'll offer fresh fruit and pressed juices to help invigorate passengers and programme the lighting to suit. The inflight entertainment might also offer programmes that stimulate the brain too.

So the work that me and my team do links up that journey through airport, Clubhouse, onboard, time of flight, whereabouts on the aircraft you're sitting and destination. It's about making sure that every single interaction customers have with us is positive and provides what they need. We know the importance of all of these details go together to make the whole experience memorable. You can provide a fantastic environment but if some of the services that you offer are perhaps substandard or there is anything that isn't as perfectly joined up as we design then it's those elements that become noticeable to the customer so it's important that we focus on every single aspect of that experience to make the whole memory as fantastic as possible.

There are a few key things that people expect on a flight, these are: for the aircraft to be safe and for them to be delivered on time and safely, and obviously for them to have a seat with as much comfort as possible and for them to have at least an opportunity for some food and drink. But we know that they are the basics that we have to deliver brilliantly - it's the little magic touches that go above and beyond that really enhance our service and our offering onboard.

What features of the Virgin Atlantic design are the ones that impress you the most?

When I first started at Virgin Atlantic, the Upper Class suite was relatively new in service and for me that was just incredible to see and experience what that brought to the airline industry. That was an industry wide game-changer. But also the development of the Upper Class cabin as a whole and the bar area is really impressive.

But as well as that, for me, it's about the development of the service. Now that we know we can do all of those things really well and we'd seeing the advent of new aircraft coming into the fleet - the new Boeing 787 - it harnesses the very best elements, the suites, the bar, the service, and just notches them up to the next level. We try to stay ahead of the game by introducing these incremental improvements for our customers both through the physical hardware and the service that we bring. 

Image from Virgin Atlantic

And looking to the future, what can Virgin Atlantic customers expect on flights in 10 or 20 years' time?

We're always working on lots of different things, and obviously they are confidential so we can't really talk about details. But coming back to the first question, I think that technology will really enhance people's expectations going forward and that will only ever grow. Just how aircraft manufacturers will embrace that and bring those opportunities into reality is yet to be seen but they are starting to do that.

We see the development of our interaction with technology changing on an annual basis, if not on a monthly basis. Obviously aircraft manufacturers can't respond that quickly but I see that as being a really important thing. I think that technological interaction will become an additional suit of armour that we can employ into our service to provide even more personalised interaction with our customers very, very quickly. 

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