Future or fantasy? Touchless lavs, pandemic-fighting seat dividers and other airplane cabin designs

Aug 21, 2020

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Due to the coronavirus, the end-to-end travel experience will look a lot different for quite some time.

Airlines have doubled down on safety enhancements, such as modified boarding procedures, mask requirements and seat blocking. Plus, in an effort to convince flyers that it’s once again safe to take to the skies, cleaning procedures have been upgraded and many service touchpoints have been eliminated.

Aside from installing plexiglass around check-in counters and gate podiums, airlines haven’t really modified the “hard product” to reduce the spread of pathogens.

But if the Japanese flag carrier All Nippon Airways (ANA) has its way, that’s about to change.

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ANA recently introduced a new method of entering the airplane lavatory in mid-June. Instead of sliding a doorknob with your hand, the new concept features a lever that allows you to open the door with your elbow.

Then, you push the door open with your elbow, instead of turning a lever or doorknob. This new touchless prototype designed by JAMCO is already on display for flyers at one of the carrier’s lounges at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport (HND).

Photo by ALL NIPPON AIRWAYS CO., LTD., and JAMCO Corporation

The airline is soliciting user feedback for this new design before deciding whether to introduce this small-but-mighty innovation fleetwide. For now, ANA states it’s in the “development stage” for the prototype.

Even if ANA decides to go ahead with the project, it’ll likely be one of the few carriers to make the investment in a touchless elbow-use doorknob. These decisions are costly, and flyers can easily just use a paper towel or apply extra hand sanitizer with the existing lavatory doorknobs.

Plus, if you’re flying on some of the newest jets like the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, chances are that most of the lavatory functions like flushing and sink water dispensers are already touchless.

Touchless flushing and handwashing on this United Dreamliner (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

ANA’s move to introduce a completely touchless lavatory is part of a much larger trend.

Enterprising airline cabin designers are always mocking up the latest cabin and seat concepts. Over the past few months, that energy has been spent on designs that prevent the spread of pathogens.

And while these mockups make for catchy headlines and viral social media posts, the reality is that few — if any — are going to happen. Aircraft seat manufacturers are constantly rolling out new designs, some practical and others more outlandish concept pieces unlikely to be seriously considered by airlines.

Image courtesy of Aviointeriors

Recently, Italian firm Aviointeriors unveiled the “Janus” seat. The concept features forward-facing window and aisle seats with rear-facing middle seats. The middle seats are flanked by a wraparound clear shield that separates them from their two neighboring seats.

Related: The hidden costs of saying goodbye to the middle seat

Aviointeriors also introduced a simpler design called “Glassafe,” which is a more typical three-abreast coach-class layout that features a transparent shield separating the upper torsos and heads of the passengers.

Priestman Goode, another desinger, also gained traction recently with its own new seat concept. The firm promised it, promising its “Pure Skies” seats would help “alleviate passenger anxiety about hygiene during boarding,” among other things.

Such plans from designers may look good on paper, but you’ll likely never get a chance to experience them firsthand.

For one, retrofitting a fleet with new seats is an incredibly costly undertaking. Aside from taking planes out of service for weeks at a time, seats themselves are also expensive. With the pandemic taking a toll on airlines’ bottom line, there’s little, if any, discretionary spending available to invest in new cabins. In addition, gaining regulatory approval for the new seats could take months if not longer.

Related: New airplane seats for the coronavirus era?

Look no further than United Airlines. The Chicago-based carrier has indefinitely halted its Polaris and Premium Plus retrofit program due to the pandemic. Like other airlines, UA needs to focus on maintaining enough cash to cover fixed costs like staff, aircraft rent and debt payments. Delta has also paused its multi-year program installing Delta One suites on its long-haul wide-body aircraft.

While they may look good on your social media feed, these concept plans will likely never make it past an airline boardroom. And even if ANA goes ahead with installing the touchless lavatory doorknob, don’t expect to see it pop up in lavatories across the sky.

Additional reporting by Ben Mutzabaugh.

Featured photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy

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