Air travel can be stressful for many passengers, and triggers are everywhere: It could be the traffic on the way to the airport, a missed or delayed flight, having to gate-check a valuable carry-on bag, turbulence, a crying baby, a bad seat neighbor or the fear of missing a connecting flight.
An important behavioral study conducted by researchers at the University of Washington found three main components to air-travel stress: “Anxious reactions to adverse air travel events; angry reactions to other passengers; and one potential antecedent of air travel stress, the lack of trust that the airlines/airports will ensure one’s comfort and safety.”
Many of these factors are simply the nature of the beast when it comes to flying. Still, airlines are on the hook when passenger distress spills over into social media complaints or altercations with the staff.
As humans, we’re often able to naturally pick up on subtle cues about when others are in distress. It may be a twitch of the lip or bat of an eye that signals to us that a fellow human is experiencing difficulty. It is challenging for busy airline and airport staff to be constantly vigilant about passengers’ subtle facial ticks or nervous behaviors.
Herein lies a great opportunity for technology to play a role in detecting and reducing stress. Recent innovations in areas like biometrics, optical detection and virtual reality (VR) are leading to new partnerships focused on developing inflight solutions to keep customers calm throughout the passenger journey.
1. In-seat Sensors
Vital signs like heart rate and body temperature are some of the best indicators of whether or not someone is in distress. Airlines are looking at in-seat sensors, in addition to interfaces to wearable devices and clothing. For instance, a passenger’s Fitbit could integrate with data from in-seat sensors to paint a picture of the customer’s overall disposition. This could then prompt the seatback screen (or personal electronic device paired to the IFE system) to recommend certain videos or food and beverage suggestions, and even offer electromechanical seat adjustments.
2. Optical Detection
By looking into passengers’ eyes — or, at least the capillaries under them — cameras embedded in IFE systems could potentially detect stress.
Optical detection tech has already been shown, via preliminary demos at aviation industry events, to have the basic capability of detecting a passenger’s emotional state. The airline industry may even be able to repurpose breakthroughs in similar technologies developed for astronauts and space travel.
3. Biometric Identity Data
Airlines and airports today are using biometrics to facilitate check-in, boarding and airport security. They’re also exploring ways to use biometrics in other areas, namely detecting and preemptively alleviating stress during flights. For example, if a passenger’s biometric data indicates distress through the check-in and boarding process in the airport, it could potentially be passed to flight attendants so they can take proactive measures to comfort the passenger. Biometric data could also be compiled to develop historic profiles and passenger personas that would help to personalize passengers’ future travel experiences.
Panasonic recently partnered with technology firm Tascent to bring innovations such as seat-back immigration and biometric payments to the inflight experience. The partnership also promises to introduce technology that will use biometric technology like iris recognition via IFEC cameras to read passengers’ emotional states while inflight. These innovations are designed to streamline the passenger experience and reduce stress at different points throughout the passenger journey.
“Optical detection tech has already been shown, via preliminary demos at aviation industry events, to have the basic capability of detecting a passenger’s emotional state.”
4. Lighting and Sound
Companies such as Panasonic are working with airlines to discover how lighting and sounds on airplanes can reduce passenger distress. Many airplanes are now beginning to incorporate LED lighting. These bulbs last longer and can be used to give off ambient lighting, which can promote better sleep patterns, reduce jet lag and improve customers’ moods. Meanwhile, ambient sound effects and sound cancellation options integrated into IFE systems will also give flyers the option of choosing audio experiences that will relax and keep them stress-free throughout their journey.
5. Virtual Reality
Many companies are also exploring how VR headsets and augmented-reality experiences can improve the passenger experience, says Steve Sizelove, Product Research Manager at Panasonic Avionics. When combined with VR, biometric data — particularly eye movements or facial muscle tension — can prompt a system to display particular visual artifacts, soothing sounds, and calming visual content. Interactive visuals along with sounds could provide an immersive digital experience that allows passengers to relax in a VR-created penthouse sofa or on a tropical island beach.
6. Air Purification
As travelers, we all know there are certain scents and smells associated with airports, airplanes and flying in general. Whether we realize it or not, these smells may subconsciously get associated with (and potentially trigger) stress and worry. To address this reality, new and upcoming air-purification technologies could have a subtle effect on reducing passenger stress by eliminating the “air-travel smell” that we’ve all come to expect. Delta, Turkish Airlines, and Singapore Airlines have already cultivated initiatives to use unique scents designed to soothe and relax passengers at different points in their journeys.
7. Enhanced Information
Finally, information is key to helping ease anxiety. Keeping travelers informed of unexpected events or difficulties can go a long way towards minimizing stress. Providing access to basic information about one’s itinerary (where’s my connecting gate, where is baggage claim, how do I get a ride, etc.), on a proactive basis is critical. IFE systems and companion apps can push this info to travelers on demand.
Panasonic currently has the foundational systems in place to provide this information. The company is working on a cloud ecosystem for airplane and off-wing data gathering and analytics that will help bridge gaps and make for a cohesive passenger information environment.
While some of these tech innovations are further along the way than others, things like in-seat sensors, optical detection, and VR will likely all play a role in stress reduction on future flights. As airlines begin to implement (and integrate) tech that is designed to keep flyers calm, travelers’ minds will become much more at ease before, during and after their journeys.