This Airplane Seat Knows When You're Nervous

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Airplanes are one of the safest ways to travel. Your chances of dying in a plane crash are roughly one in 11 million. The odds that you’ll be killed in a car accident, on the other hand, are much better: one in 5000. Still, about 30 percent of us find there’s something disconcerting about rocketing through the air at 500 miles per hour, 40,000 feet above the ground. Occasionally a passenger will experience a panic attack mid-air, causing chaos in the cabin or even forcing an emergency landing. A new concept for airplane seating is designed to know when you’re distressed and alert the cabin crew early on so they can comfort you, hopefully mitigating mid-air freakouts or illnesses before they get out of hand. 

The seats were designed by a group of industrial design engineering students from the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands in partnership with Zodiac Aerospace and KLM. Each seat comes equipped with sensors that measure a passenger's heart rate. “The seat sensors are capable of reading the heart's electrical impulses through clothing and are able to use one’s natural contact with the seat to maintain a reading,” the students say

Data collected by the sensors goes to an app called Flightbeat, which cabin crew can use as a guide for how people are feeling. A higher heart rate in seat 15B may suggest a panicked or uncomfortable traveler, so the flight attendant could drop by with a glass of water or a blanket and provide some support.

Sensors could also be used to measure how nervous passengers react to certain kinds of in-flight entertainment or meals. Do comedies calm their nerves? Can a complimentary glass of wine help reduce stress? Are certain areas of the cabin more nervewracking than others? A calm traveler is a happy traveler, and this kind of tracking could be a valuable tool for airlines looking to improve overall customer experience.

Flightbeat is just one of many recent attempts at redesigning the dire seating situation on airplanes. The hunt is on for a design that lets airlines pack on as many passengers as possible without making them more uncomfortable than they already are. Some are more respectable than others: one concept called Morph uses a single sheet of fabric stretched over three chair frames, which can be easily adjusted to fit an individual’s body type. The concept eliminates the seatback versus knees dilemma and “brings the ergonomic, high-tension style of the Aeron Chair to air travel,” writes Joseph Flaherty at Wired.   

In 2017, Airbus is rolling out its A380 superjumbo plane that will feature a whopping 11 seats per row in the economy section—three at the windows and five in the middle. 

And then there’s this patent, from Airbus, for a seat that “looks like a cross between a bicycle seat and an office chair.”

The students behind Flightbeat think pairing sensors with wearable tech like smartwatches could provide even more personalized in-flight service. “It will be interesting to look deeper at the possible connections with smart watches in 2020 that could, together with Flightbeat, deliver added value to the experience of a passenger on-board,” they say

And if by chance you don’t like the idea of being monitored by your airplane seat, you can always opt out.