Fasten your seatbelts, this might be a long ride.
Nervous flyer? Tired of seeing low-quality headphones on your seat when you board? Frustrated by the resolution and size of the screen on the back of the seat in front? Well, the industry does have a solution in the works, virtual reality (VR), and for the first time it’s now being trialed in the US on commercial flights with a view to a greater level of accessibility in the future. This is thanks to an announcement this week which saw Alaska Airlines, along with AlloSky confirm the start of US-based trials where first-class passengers on two routes are getting to experience the benefits of VR at 33,000 feet.
So, VR is coming to an airline near you soon, right? Well, not so soon as the arrival of VR to all seats, and for all passengers is still likely to be some way off, and in no small part due to the hurdles associated with the technology and also those specific to the commercial aviation industry.
It’s a class thing
As evidenced by this latest trial, class matters when you fly. Which is nothing of new course as while those at the front of the aircraft get to sleep in an actual flatbed seat, get to enjoy a finer and restaurant-like dining experience, and get enough branded amenities and cosmetics to ensure when they land they look as fresh as they did during take-off, economy passengers are packed into seats with a pitch (technical term which best describes the distance between your seat and the seat in front) of 33-inches (if you’re lucky and traveling with a generous airline), endure food which genuinely looks like it was cooked a decade ago and kept warm since then, and only provided with a cheap eye-mask, headset, and small tube of toothpaste (international customers only) - there's a reason the industry internally and affectionately refers to economy as “cattle class.”
So it stands to reason that a new, emerging, and highly-engaging technology like VR would make its way to the front of the cabin first. Well, yes. There is certainly an element of those who pay more, get more in effect here. However, this is not the only, and probably not even the main reason why first-class passengers are in this case first once again. As there is a far more fundamental issue of this being a numbers-based problem, and one which will remain an issue for the economy for some time. In simple terms, first class cabins are very limited in the number of seats. This is not only due to a $10,000 each way price tag attached to each seat, but also an intentional decision by airlines to create the exact ambiance (read, less people) that's worthy of a $10,000 seat in the first place. For example, the A380 is one of the big dogs in the aviation world due to its capacity to hold in excess of 850 passengers - that is, if there were no classes in use and you were to pack pax (the technical term) in an economy (Y class in technical speak) formation throughout. As more typically speaking, an active A380 these days will hold around 550 passengers in total. That 300-passenger drop by is to accommodate the roughly 80 passengers you will find in business (C or J class) and the at-most 10 passengers in first class (F class).
Of course, your average A380 flight is likely to be a long-haul international flight, but the same logic applies to short and mid-haul flights, as well as domestic. For example one of the routes Alaska is now testing VR on is Seattle to Boston which is likely on a much smaller aircraft, such as the 737-700. Which will also likely mean the business class cabin is abolished in favor of a clearer first/economy class distinction - typical of short-to-mid-haul flights. At a guess, that flight is lightly broken down to roughly 10 F class seats and 110 Y class seats, give or take a few. So whichever way you look at it, and whatever aircraft is in use, the limited capacity associated with F class makes it the perfect testing ground for anything, including the use of VR. By the same token, the far greater number of pax associated with Y class makes it very difficult to not only trial the technology, but even deploy it when the time is right. To the point, where there is no guarantee it will be deployed at the back of the plane at all.
Of course, that is the ultimate goal by companies and airlines invested in the technology as it does add to the overall product, and with airlines facing a race-to-the-bottom on seat prices, it makes sense anything an airline can add to the in-flight product to bolster those declining seat prices will be welcomed. More so in the economy as C/J and F class do not typically suffer from the same price-related concerns, and certainly not to the same degree. So one way in which VR might make it to Y class is through the use of more of a seat-back product. Similar to how the IFE (in-flight entertainment) unit is already distributed, there is the likelihood you could board a plane in the future and find VR goggles attached to the seat in front. Yes, this would pretty much fly (pun intended) in the face of the VR industry's move to standalone VR, but some accommodations will have to be met to offset against the wider deployment issues. Which would also likely mean it’s not quite the same experience as what’s offered in F class. Similar to how you end up with a low quality (and in some cases almost useless) pair of headphones in Y class, you also might end up with a basic version of the headset provided to F class passengers. Therein, would be the real class difference, not the availability which is simply more of a deployment issue than anything else.
The three S’s raise their own issues - security, safety, and services
There’s also the issues of security and safety which should come as no surprise. While flying has never been more comfortable (yes, even in cattle class) and more safer, security and safety have never mattered more, and to the point where even one security or safety issue is scrutinized and focused on in great detail by the media and the industry as a whole. And while VR will make an average flight even more comfortable and enjoyable, by definition, it has the potential to add to the problems airlines face every day.
No matter what you think you are entitled to, or should get when flying, even you F class passengers, an airline's one and true requirement is to get passengers to their destination safely. The rest is all just jazz. But getting those passengers to a destination safely is not just the job of airlines and crew, but also the actual passengers. After all, if the worse was to happen on an A380 the fifteen crew on-board would in reality struggle to help the 550+ passengers, across two decks (the A380 has an up and downstairs). Therefore, passenger understanding of an aircraft (why you really should watch the safety video) and their surroundings is a crucial element in times of an emergency. VR on the other hand, is by definition designed to remove you from the environment you are in and transport you elsewhere. No matter what anyone says, this is not the ideal when it comes to a cabin at 10,000 meters in the air. Have you ever wondered why airlines have taken so long to let passengers use their personal devices during take-off and landing? Or for that matter, even the on-board IFE? Well, one of the reasons is this ‘it’s better to be alert’ ethos adopted by the industry. With the most vulnerable times during a flight being take-off and landing, airlines do prefer passengers to be as alert, and as ready, as possible during these times. While the rest of the cruising altitude part of the journey is far less of an issue, the awareness aspect still applies. It’s always better to be more aware, than less when flying, and VR is not a facilitator of this way of thinking which does mean the industry will be looking to apply elements that mitigate against this greater lack of awareness. For example, while VR is designed to immerse you, that won’t be the case when flying as these units will (probably by law) need to be tuned to the aircraft’s tannoy system. Which means you will get the usual announcements and freeze-frame instances where you are advised of turbulence, and to faster your seat belts - as well as the start of the meal and duty free services. Some passengers may even find some airlines require users to remove the headset altogether during turbulent periods, and especially if the turbulence is severe enough - bad turbulence in itself can result in injury, and again, the need to be ready may prove to be the difference.
The same can be said for the in-flight services in general. As it stands to reason you won’t be able to eat while watching a movie through a VR headset, at least not without throwing food and cheap wine over yourself, as well as those strangers you happen to be secretly at war with over the armrest. Which could mean that once again, the drinks and meal services will prove to be a disruption to the immersive experience. Yes, you probably could opt to skip the meal (good choice on some airlines) altogether and just focus on the movie, but then you are losing one in-flight service to accommodate another. Not to mention in F class you are almost paying literally just for the meal service, which means missing that in favor of watching a movie on a headset would be a mistake. Even more so considering the quality of the IFE system in use in F class is as good as watching through a headset in many ways. For example, on some airlines you can get a display which measures close to 20-inches. Considering you’re only seated about 50-80-inches (that “pitch” again), the TV in F class can be immersive enough in its own right.
Don’t expect proper VR
Sticking with the immersive theme, there’s an old saying in VR (OK, not that old considering VR is still so new) that “seeing is believing” and it’s is true. If you don’t know the benefits of VR then that’s probably because you haven’t experience VR first-hand yet, as it’s a game-changer. What’s more, the technology is only getting better as time goes on, and what we’ll be able to experience in the future will be another level compared to the way in which we watch and game today. But, that does not mean you should expect the same quality of experience next time you are on a flight. If anything, you should expect the opposite - a tamed and more lightweight experience.
Yes, you will be wearing a headset but that headset is not going to be the most advanced headset you can get. Yes, as time goes on, the quality of the headset will improve but there are inherent issues with using a headset in a closed environment, let alone one that’s 30,000+ feet in the air. Firstly, and again, especially if you are travelling in “cargo class” (another of those affectionate terms) then you don’t have the space to move and engage with VR as VR demands. For some, there is also the issue of VR sickness. This is typically defined as a ‘motion sickness’ where your brain is experiencing movement while your body is not. While this can be an issue in itself, is questionable whether the issue could be further compounded by additional environmental factors like altitude. With alcohol -- for some, one of the automatic requirements of flying -- possibly also adding to the issue.
It’s aspects like these which will likely mean the actual product experienced in the air can never be the same as that on the ground. Instead, a much lighter and more passive version of the experience will be in effect on an aircraft. One which is actually less VR and much more of a viewing experience akin to what is offered through the existing IFE solutions. In other words, the experience will be mainly taking on the movie-watching benefits of a headset, where a VR headset can provide viewers with the option to watch ‘in private’ and a bit more cinema-like.
On the surface this week's announcement is good news for those who want to see changes to the existing media consumption options available when flying. However, the issues raised here are elements which will need to be overcome or accounted for before VR becomes a mainstream in-flight option. To be clear, these are not sudden or unknown issues, and those looking to bring VR to the skies are well aware of these problems, and currently in the process of identifying ways in which these obstacles can be overcome. In some respects, that's the very point of this week's announcement - the service is being trialed to identify issues and fix them. In the meantime, if you are flying next week, month, or even next year in Y class you shouldn't necessarily expect to find a VR headset waiting for you when you board. Even if there is one, and you can escape to somewhere else, you'll be brought back to reality pretty quickly when the person besides you accidentally elbows you while moving, or the flight attendant bangs the cart against you when passing.