Here ya go ..
Tomorrow's Planes: Higher
Humidity, Mood Lighting
June 28, 2005; Page D5
It may seem hard to believe when stuck in diminutive airplane seats these days, but some serious improvements for travelers in cabin comfort are headed to an airport near you.
The biennial Paris Air Show is a showcase for what's ahead for travelers, and the exhibition held this month offered a peek at intriguing ideas and important changes. A massager built into your airplane seat, for example, and a personal ventilation system that curves around your head and blows air directly on your cheeks are among the more unusual innovations floated by manufacturers.
But the most important developments involve the look and feel of the entire cabin. Two airplanes offer major changes in the cabin environment that will raise the bar for what travelers expect from aircraft: one, a regional jet with a fullsize, comfortable cabin instead of the typical Weight Watchers tube of small jets; and the other, a wide-body that will allow you to arrive from long trips feeling less tired and less dehydrated.
The wide-body -- a Boeing 787 that will fly for the first time in 2007 -- will be the first big transport plane with a fuselage built of composite plastics instead of aluminum. Composites are stronger and won't corrode, and those are big advantages in aircraft design. You'll feel the difference in the cabin.
Boeing's 787 offers travelers significant improvements in the cabin's atmosphere, including more humid air quality and light-adjusting windows (below).
Boeing Co. says the composites allow the 787 to have a lot more humidity in the cabin -- about 20% relative humidity compared with a Sahara-like 4% or so in long-haul wide-body planes today. Travelers won't feel as dry and contact lenses won't be as scratchy.
What is more, the pressure in the cabin can be set to the equivalent of about 6,000 feet above sea level, instead of today's 8,000 feet, because the airplane's frame is stronger. It's roughly the difference between Denver and Vail, a difference I feel when flying in an unpressurized single-engine prop plane. If I cruise at 8,000 feet, I arrive more tired than at lower altitudes because the air is thinner at higher altitudes.
"There are a lot of things we couldn't do in the past that are enabled now by new technology," says Mike Bair, Boeing's vice president for the 787 program.
The look of the cabin will be different, too. Instead of fluorescent lighting, tiny light-emitting diodes on the ceiling will sparkle like stars to give a night effect at times. The diodes also allow for color-changing mood lighting throughout the 787. Boeing says you can make airline food more appealing with color -- for instance, subtle red lighting improves the appearance, which is why you sometimes see red lights at supermarket meat counters. After dinner, the cabin can look like night, regardless of the sun outside, to help passengers adjust to time changes.
Windows also won't have shades -- light will be controlled electronically by flight attendants. The crew can gradually let light in when the sun rises and landing nears, much like light-adjusting sunglasses. (Flight attendants will get 95% of the light control, with passengers only the last 5%.)
"You can program a day-night cycle," says Mr. Bair.
Ceiling panels will have a film covering that keeps the eye from focusing on it. Instead your eye will default to a long-distance focus, making you feel like you're in a much more open space than an airplane tube, Boeing claims.
Embraer's "double bubble" design allows a six-foot-seven-inch tall person to stand up in the aisle.
The 787 is a narrower plane than Boeing's 777, but in tests of a cabin mock-up, "people think it's bigger than the 777," says Kenneth Price, a Boeing marketing director who has worked on the cabin design of both planes.
If it delivers what Boeing promises, the 787, which will replace 767s and other wide-body jets carrying about 200 or more people, will change what we expect on big airplanes. The 787, seen only in display pictures at this year's air show, already has tallied more than 250 orders and commitments from customers.
Likewise, the new class of larger regional jets built by a Brazilian company will change our minimum expectations for little planes.
Though small jets have been a big improvement over turboprop planes, they do compromise cabin space, and frequent travelers are growing weary of the little planes, especially as airlines use them on longer trips of three hours or more. In most of today's regional jets, carry-on baggage is basically limited to briefcases. Bathrooms, legroom and headroom can be challenging.
The category-changing breakthrough is that Empresa Brasileira de Aeronautica SA
, or Embraer, has put a fullsize, comfortable cabin in a small jet. It has done that by building a plane not with a circular tube but with a design involving two overlapping circles to maximize cabin width and still provide headroom above and cargo space at the bottom. Embraer calls the design a "double bubble." The result is a cabin that is "a miniairliner," says Orlando José Ferreira Neto, director of market intelligence.
The double-bubble shape, which the 787 will also use, enables Embraer to create a cabin with per-passenger space slightly larger than on an Airbus A320, which is the best narrow-body plane in terms of seat width and comfort. The Embraer jets -- four models, labeled 170, 175, 190 and 195 -- have no middle seats, with all cabins laid out with two seats on each side of the aisle. Overhead bins can take luggage and a six-foot-seven-inch tall person can stand up in the aisle.
Alitalia was the launch customer for the 70-passenger 170, and commuter affiliates of US Airways Group Inc. and UAL Corp.'s United Airlines are flying a few in the U.S. JetBlue Airways will be the launch customer for the 100-passenger 190, taking its first delivery this fall.
These planes have the potential to really improve air travel, bringing fullsize passenger comfort to smaller cities and towns. Competitors will have to respond because passenger expectations will rise. The 787 will have the same impact, and Boeing's competitor, Airbus, is poised to launch a new plane in the same class, the A350.