The future of air travel? 

A Virtual Solution to Airplane Fights

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade.”
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Now that the discussion of reclining airplane seats seems to be dying down, it's worth noting how little airlines have had to say about how to stop further incidents. The most logical way to prevent fights -- and diverted flights -- is probably to give passengers more room between seats. That's probably not something airlines want to do, and so it appears best (if not most profitable) for them to say nothing and just deal with the occasional passenger freak-out.

The problem is that passenger freak-outs are more common than this summer's reclining-seat incidents might suggest. Analysis from the International Air Transport Authority based on reports from 170 airlines -- and discussed in a position paper by a group of airline associations -- shows that more than 28,400 "unruly passenger incidents" were reported from 2007 to 2013. "This equates to an average of one incident per 1,600 flights. Of these incidents, almost 20% were serious enough to require the intervention of police or security services," the paper explained.

Enter Airbus, Europe's aircraft manufacturing behemoth and a pioneer when it comes to passenger discomfort. It turns out, however, that Airbus isn't totally heartless, much less completely oblivious to customer comfort issues. In fact, it's been thinking about these issues for a few years now.

"During aircraft flights, certain passengers have periods when they are bored either during a wait phase preceding take-off or following landing or during a cruise phase," explained a patent filing from the manufacturer published Aug. 26 (and filed years ago). "Moreover, it is known that aircraft flights generate stress for certain passengers." Music, films, video games and what the filing calls "catering services," may exist but "are in some cases insufficient to relieve boredom or stress."

The solution that Airbus patented? Potentially the world's most complicated "headrest" which, according to the paperwork, includes something that looks like a fighter-jet pilot's helmet, and contains earphones, "an opto-electronic screen" and "means for diffusing at least an odorous substance." Does our flying future contain potpourri-scented movies on the red-eye?

A virtual-reality helmet is a fun idea, especially if you're not bothered by the possibility that Airbus may be interested in mitigating passenger discomfort via immersive media. In the words of the patent filing: "In all cases, the invention improves therefore the comfort of the passengers and the pleasantness of their flight." Easier said than done when you're paying a lot for very cramped quarters.

Of course, there's almost no chance that airlines that still give away disposable headphones in economy class are suddenly going spring for virtual-reality helmets. (Airbus also indicated to Wired that it has no immediate plans to bring this to market.) In fact, if the goal is to calm edgy passengers, it might be cheaper (and more space effective) to look back to the midcentury "golden age" of air travel and give away alcohol. That won't solve every problem -- and it might cause a few -- but it could go a long way to reminding those of us in economy class that the airlines view us as people and not just as miserable revenue-earning units that need to be kept under control, virtually or otherwise.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Adam Minter at aminter@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net