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Insider Series: How Airlines Brighten Up Your Flight

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As part of our Insider Series, TPG Contributor “Ray Lumen,” an aviation lighting designer, provides a glimpse into how light and lighting play a part in your flying experience — and what airlines do to improve it.

When you’re on board a commercial aircraft, light and lighting both have significant roles to play in your air travel experience. They could make you feel calm or alert, give you more energy or inspire you to fall asleep – and could possibly even offset the effects of jet lag. While you may not think about lights when you’re on a plane, rest assured that airline lighting designers have thought a lot about you.

Natural light plays an important role in your physiology and biology — on the ground and during a flight. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

As raw energy, light plays an important role in your life. In a physiological sense, it stimulates your eyes and enables you to see things, and biologically speaking, it activates your body’s circadian rhythm of waking and sleeping.

However, as a specifically designed system with a purpose, lighting can have a big psychological impact on you, as well. Think about the unpleasant surprise of a light coming on in the middle of the night and waking you up, or the smile that comes to your face when you see Christmas lights twinkling on your neighbor’s house. You might not be aware of ways in which lighting manipulates your emotions, but the next time you’re watching a play, film or TV show, pay attention to changes in lighting, as they serve as a visual language. For example, when lights start to go dark, it’s generally a cue for you to feel a sense of foreboding and often precedes a character doing an evil deed or having a negative experience.

An example of commercial airplane interior lighting. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

On board a commercial aircraft, both light and lighting interplay with each other to impact your travel experience.

An aircraft’s interior lighting is generally brighter than the jetway in order to ensure that you can make your way through a densely populated plane and to your seat without incident. Though light produced by an airplane is generally transparent to us, it’s actually busily bouncing off the seats, walls, ceiling, lining and even luggage, as well your skin and clothing and those of all the other people around you. This enables your vision and helps you get spatially oriented and comfortably settled.

Reflected light from a red item on the sidewall. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Modern aircraft have sophisticated lighting systems that are designed to help you feel good about your journey from departure to arrival by supporting your circadian rhythm and creating a sense of  predictability and calmness. For instance, an airplane’s lighting system will normally dim during take off and landings, helping to soothe nerves during what tend to be the most anxiety-inducing portions of a flight — heavy turbulence notwithstanding.

Lighting also informs you of other events on board your flight. It’s likely that the lighting will change once the plane reaches 30,000 feet, possibly to signify meal service and certainly during times of emergency. During heavy turbulence, for instance, the lights will blaze on bright, enabling the crew to assess the situation on board and, if necessary, to aid passengers.

Some modern airline lighting systems include a huge array of colors. Photo courtesy of
Some modern airline lighting systems include a large array of colors. Image courtesy of Nigel /Flickr.

Some new aircraft lighting systems can produce a huge array of colors and gently transition between them over the course of your flight. When it comes to light, there isn’t a specific color or wavelength that can make humans feel certain emotions. Instead, a color-transitioning lighting system on an airplane generally serves to entertain us and add to the wonder of flying, as well as reduce your potential for in-flight anxiety and discomfort while maximizing your ability to function when needed. It would be great if a pulsing magenta light could make you feel as though your economy seat is as wide as a business-class seat, but instead, colorful airline lighting can simply help your overall travel process go more smoothly.

Airline lighting designers are always looking for innovations that will make your travel experience as pleasant as possible. For instance, while there’s presently no magic cure for jet lag, airline lighting designers are always looking into different ways to use light to phase-shift your biological clock while you’re in flight, including giving passengers a quick charge of light as they leave a plane in order to potentially ease their adaptation to time zone changes

You may have noticed that some newly retrofitted aircraft include blue lighting, inspired by the fact that the light-detection system in your eyes helps to set your internal clock by utilizing a protein called melanopsin that is sensitive to blue light. With this sensitivity in mind, researchers have begun to begun to investigate the effects that pulses of blue light may have on circadian rhythms. The potential of airline lighting design to reduce the wearying effects of jet lag makes the future of air travel look very bright indeed.

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