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The Future of Flying? You Can See It Now

In a computer lab in Winston-Salem, N.C., interior systems designers at Rockwell Collins use virtual reality to test the airline cabins they create, inviting customers to sit in seats, open overhead bins and tug rolling suitcases down the aisle. This allows them to discover and fix mistakes before the design is finalized.

It would take “crazy-man money” to actually build a prototype and inspect it this way, said David Balfour, a visualization specialist with the company. Virtual reality allows airlines to “put a virtual-reality headset on and stand up and view an entire cabin.”

In the virtual-reality environment, to err is actually a good thing, said Glenn Johnson, director of the design studio at Rockwell Collins.

Designs “fail quicker and cheaper,” he said, which means improvements can come faster.

This ability to create large and complex environments also makes virtual reality promising for training airfield staff members who work in hazardous environments, servicing airliners in all kinds of weather and light conditions.

With RampVR, a program developed by the I.A.T.A., students wear goggles and identify problems as they virtually inspect an airplane and the ramp area around it. Experiential training sticks in the mind, according to Frederic Leger, airport passenger cargo and security product director for the association.

“You are living the training because you are active in the training,” Mr. Leger said. “It’s like a game where you have a score at the end, so it goes to the emotional part of your brain.”

Considering that airline pilots do recurrent training in a simulator on a regular basis, bringing a simulated setting to other areas of the industry is not a new concept. It is only recently, however, that the improved quality and lower cost of virtual reality have made its widespread use practical.

With all the showy advantages of virtual reality, some airlines are trying to turn the “wow” into revenue. At a pop-up cafe in London earlier this month, Air Canada invited visitors to watch a Boeing 787 Dreamliner flight in virtual reality. The German airline Lufthansa prepared a 360 video of the interior of its long-haul aircraft, and its employees presented viewing goggles to ticketed passengers waiting at boarding gates in Newark and Frankfurt last year. After watching the show, Lufthansa, asked if they wanted to purchase an upgrade to a premium economy seat.

“How can you communicate a travel product? This is the problem in the industry,” said Torsten Wingenter, Lufthansa’s senior director of digital innovations. Virtual reality gave the company the “first chance to show the product in an emotional way.”

After the test, the emotion at the airline can be described as happy. A number of economy passengers paid $299 more to fly in premium economy after viewing the cabin in virtual reality. Mr. Wingenter would not say how many, but that it was “a significant number.”

Biometric Boarding

In December, Lufthansa passengers flying out of Los Angeles will be able to use what JetBlue customers in Boston are already using — boarding gates that let passengers onto the airplane with no paper ticket or electronic boarding pass, just a face that matches their passport photo.

On two JetBlue routes, from Boston to Aruba and the Dominican Republic, passengers stand in front of a camera that takes their picture and compares it to the traveler’s image in the passport database of Customs and Border Protection.

“We’re seeing about three seconds for the photograph to be taken, transmitted and a positive response back,” said Joanna Geraghty, JetBlue’s executive vice president of customer experience.

Facial recognition will be expanded. Ms. Geraghty said this was the beginning of a new era for travelers.

“You can go into an airport and you won’t need to show a boarding card, you won’t need to pull out a passport,” she said. “There will be no bag tag, no lines, you almost walk right onto an aircraft. That’s the world I look forward to.”

Photo

A baggage robot, known as Leo, on the job at the Geneva Airport.

Credit
SITA

Intelligent Machines

Ms. Geraghty is like many aviation technology specialists who look at developments in other industries and think about how they could improve air travel.

In a workshop in Geneva, SITA has several robots that travel to industry conferences around the world to start conversations about how autonomous vehicles might be used in aviation.

One robot, named Kate, is a self-directed check-in kiosk that moves to areas of congestion as needed. The other robot, Leo, takes bags from passengers and deposits them where they need to be to get routed to the proper destination.

Whether Kate or Leo end up at your local airport is not the point, said Mr. Peters, SITA’s technology chief.

“The robots are also demonstrators to get people talking about what is the future of autonomous vehicles in the airport,” Mr. Peters said. But for all that technology has to offer, one of the most important tests is how well the next new gadget plays with people.

“Some things can be prototyped and some things can’t,” he said. “Some things you have to have a physical interaction with to figure out what works.”

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