Airlines spend millions of dollars reminding us of how they are returning to the good ol’ days of flying. Rekindling the golden age of aviation with roomy suites, bars, butlers and retro liveries. Yet for the thousands of people who board a commercial flight each day, what airlines propose to rekindle is at odds with what the average economy-class flyer needs: Innovation.

Take the iPad for example. Here’s a device which has allowed airlines to change the way they deliver in-flight entertainment (IFE). A massive shift in how we consume entertainment in our homes is now saving airlines money by helping them do away with traditional seat-back entertainment and embrace the Bring Your Own Device approach.

But for anyone who has used their iPad on a flight you’ll know how frustrating it is trying to position it, work on it or find a spot for it while you eat dinner. Airlines have taken years to catch up and they still aren’t there. “We know you want it, but we’re not really built for it.” And by they time they are, the rest of the world has already shifted to new technology.

Photo: iPads on board, Dave Schumaker, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Speed matters

The speed at which innovation is happening is far greater than airlines are able to predict and respond. There’s a valid need to be risk adverse and refitting an aircraft interior takes time and money. When exactly to adapt is also critical. It’d be disastrous to spend on technology that never catches on or isn’t used by the time it’s implemented.

To innovate at a speed more aligned with the demands of their customers, airlines need room to be flexible. We’ve all seen seats with video connectors and 3 sizes of unidentifiable audio jacks when all you want is a USB plug to charge your phone. Thankfully, it’s now common to find USB connections, but what happens when devices no longer use USB? Airlines and cabin manufacturers need to create seats and spaces that are modular so connections can be changed without the need to refit an entire cabin.

Learning from outside aviation

Photo: Qantas trials Virtual Reality headsets

Qantas broke the mould last week by offering virtual reality headsets in conjunction with Samsung. While they are only available to first class passengers for now (those of us sitting up the back can only dream of paying for the privilege of some virtual legroom), it is a step in the right direction to incorporating advancements outside of the aviation industry with those directly affecting the passenger experience.

Virtual reality in-flight may be a bit of a gimmick, but it fits a framework that allows for faster change and builds partnerships with creative companies in other industries. It starts small with an idea that can be separated from the physical restraints of an aircraft, tested and tried again.

Ryanair is responding, at least online, with Ryanair Labs, a self-described digital innovation hub with a goal to change online travel. Here’s an airline that understands better than anyone that innovation sometimes begins with less, not more.

Comfort is king

Photo: Air New Zealand Skycouch, Nicholas Young, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

And while iPads and IFE may best illustrate the gap between the aviation world and everything else, customers want innovation across all areas of flying. Better defined personal space. Better food options. Better air quality. Better check-in and bag collection. Better seats and better utilised seats. Some airlines get it.

Air New Zealand’s Economy Skycouch, which is basically a standard row of 3 seats with footrests that pop up to make a bed, represents a return to spacious lounge-style airline seating.

Photo: Thomson Airways’ Family Booth

Thomson Airways plans a harmonious pairing of past and present with their Family Booth, a throw back to classic diner booths where families are seated around a table to relax and enjoy a meal.

Cheap, cheerful and bare-bones is fine for low cost carriers because they represent the type of innovation that makes doing business more efficient and affordable. Less pain on your wallet and more on your behind. But for airlines looking to romanticise flight in 2015, the realities rarely fit the pretty picture being painted by marketing departments. At least not for those flying economy.

Article originally published by me on LinkedIn