From 3 to 36,000 feet

3 feet (900mm in new money) is the average height of a kitchen worktop. 36,000 feet is pretty much the standard cruising height for a commercial aircraft. So, what does a kitchen countertop and an aircraft’s cruising altitude have in common?

Well, to start with it’s not about kitchens in the sky or improvement in galley design or even standards of in-flight catering – it’s actually a story of innovation, key learnings, and how the future of air travel will unravel in coming years.

I’m not going to go over old ground, but it’s been tough. Planes that are sitting on the ground do not make shareholders happy and it’s been an extremely costly 14-15 months or so for everyone concerned. So how do we get planes back in the air? How do we get passengers travelling once again and what will the future potentially look like?

Casting my mind back, I remember JS Sainsbury being one of the first supermarkets to stock and sell Microban chopping boards. A microbial resistant chopping board that kept germs at bay as we became more and more adventurous with the food we cooked. Now we have all manner of sprays, purpose-built surfaces, and wipes that will eradicate bacteria and importantly viruses in a flash (no pun intended).

I am not entirely sure when I spotted that first Microban chopping board, but it was a long time ago. To my mind it’s taken some time for airlines to catch up with the idea of antibacterial surfaces especially when you consider in 2019 there were 153 million passenger journeys from the UK, that’s a lot of hands being placed on a lot of aircraft surfaces.

Of course, there are cleaning crews who do a good job with their various methods but when you consider screens, tray tables, even the side walls of an aircraft are made of some form of plastic surely the idea of an antimicrobial plastic akin to Microban or a surface coating would have been thought of before.

To be honest, I’m sure the idea will have been floated across a design meeting table at some point and dismissed based on cost but there’s nothing like a global pandemic to exponentially speed up change and bring innovation screaming forward as an essential part of the reopening of the skies.

And that is exactly what is going to happen in the short, medium and long term. Hygiene will no longer be just a ‘nice to have’ it will be a key factor in passenger decisions as to which brand they fly with.

Corsair the French airline is equipping its aircraft tray tables with a film/barrier that immediately decontaminates bacteria and viruses on contact and last for years. There is innovation in seat covering that use silver ions to deliver antibacterial properties and 3M have developed an antimicrobial coating that can be sprayed or wiped on to make a surface which continuously self-cleans itself and is safe for up to 30 days. For those lucky enough to grab a ‘leather seat’ when they turn left, they will be equally as protected as leathers are being developed with self-cleaning antimicrobial properties.

Another factor to consider in the race towards better hygiene is the idea of ‘contactless’ or as the airline industry has renamed it – ‘touchless’. In retail, contactless payment is now considered the ‘new normal’ accounting for 88.6% of total card payments in the UK in 2020. This high level of adoption has led to Emirates to work alongside IATA to develop a digital COVID passport and at a more practical level ANA the Japanese airline has been trialling a Hands-Free Lavatory door mechanism. As an aside, the Japanese are obsessed with loo’s… Not only the all singing, all dancing, jet washing, air drying versions that are so popular but back in 2010 ANA introduced the first ever Female Only lavatory on a commercial airliner – a brilliant piece of innovation.

So, what are the lessons we can learn here? When it comes to innovation looking or seeking inspiration from often unexpected places is immensely helpful to drive you and your brand forward – and that’s not just looking at products and services but behaviours and actions. Tackling this kind of massive problem in the airline industry might have daunted some but those who are willing to take the risk and make the investment will undoubtedly win in the future.

We have helped clients develop New Product Development in areas such as transportation, food and drink and corporate. Pragmatic consumer or audience understanding, a clear focus on the business ambition, ideation and an agile mindset are key to driving these kinds of projects forward to realisation.

Now, I wonder what else has come out of the kitchen or even the small cupboard under the stairs?

Words by James Acton