Last Friday, the TVE Travel & Lifestyle team took a trip to the Saatchi Gallery to explore BA’s new ‘Flight of the Future’ exhibition. We learnt about self-packing suitcases, seats that grow to fit your body, plane structures that create energy out of thin air, and we also had the chance to soar above Florence in Da Vinci’s Flying Machine (well, as close as a VR simulator could get us to it). But what we came out thinking was this: with so many opportunities to transform the flying experience lurking on the horizon, when will the aviation industry fragment and create luxury flying adventures totally divorced from transport?
All the ingredients are there to make flying more than getting from A to B. Let’s start with AI. The exhibition promises that through (terrifyingly smart) AI, cabin stewards will be able to provide the ultimate tailored service – from sensing you are hungover to knowing the exact combination of nutrients you need to feel on top of the world again (literally). This takes us to hyper-personalised food: through 3D printing and customer profiling, in the future in-flight meals will be designed precisely to your needs, preferences and the location you’re visiting. It doesn’t stop there: from your holiday wardrobe being printed for you on arrival, to chairs that grow to fit your body and the opportunity to configure your space on the plane depending on your needs (e.g. a space for working or a space for families), the future of flying looks intensely personalised. But, given these features could all break ground in the luxury hospitality space, it feels like what customers will be getting is a lot more than a bus with wings. The market is ripe to diverge.
Look at trains and boats for inspiration. You can take a cheap, uninspiring, vomit-comet if you need a quick and easy way to transport you and your car across the sea. You can also pass under the sea in box containers on a train. We all know these are not luxury ways to travel. In the future, it’s rumoured airlines will sell standing tickets to cram more people in and push costs down, and we’re already seeing the development of no-frill-flying through the likes of Wizz Air and Ryanair, where only you and the clothes on your back are granted access to the flight, unless you want to pay extra. But at present, ‘high end’ options are doing little more. There is a relatively constant stream of innovation in First Class and Business Class, which many customers are willing to pay more for in order to get some pleasure out of their in-flight experience, but very few passengers would say being on a plane is part of a holiday, let alone an enriching experience.
For cruises and train travel, however, we see the opposite. From the inside out, bespoke cruises and luxury train travel are a holiday in and of themselves. High-end cruise ships offer such cutting-edge entertainment, amazing spa treatments and bespoke services that many don’t even bother getting off the ship when it arrives in port. Furthermore, traveling on the Trans-Siberian Railway is on many people’s bucket list’s – not because they have any burning desire visit Siberia – but more because they want to immerse themselves in the vintage luxury. With the ingredients mentioned above, could we see the development of airlines that offer enriching and bespoke onboard experiences that make being up in the air an event in and of itself?
This is not to mention the mode of transport itself. Being on a cruise is a unique way to be surrounded by the sea, feel the sea breeze in your hair, and approach the land in a soothing and exciting way. By train you see miles and miles of beautiful countryside outside your window, as you enjoy afternoon tea. The ‘Flight of the Future’ exhibition hinted at transparent shells and more windows on planes – can you imagine experiencing a flight as though you’re hang-gliding? For some this might be enough to make them never want to board a plane again, but this could have the potential to totally transform the nature of flying and the way we interact with air travel.
So what are our take outs from the ‘Flight of the Future’ at the Saatchi Gallery? Firstly, we don’t think it will make any difference to the direction of budget travel. Prices will continue to plummet along with the customer experience, because for many people speed and value is all you need from a flight. But it did highlight the opportunity for a whole new category of flight-based adventures, where being inside the plane could be at the height of luxury, and the experience of flying could become a holiday destination in itself. In the future, what if a cruise, with its on-board entertainment systems and multiple destinations, were not limited to where you could sail to overnight, but instead where you could fly to? What if you could do yoga as you soar over the rolling hills of Europe? These things might feel far away, but if they’re going to happen, we might as well make the most of them.