High-Tech Changes That Will Revolutionize Flying

Better bins, lighting and "dimming" windows should make travel more enjoyable.

May 13, 2009 — -- You're on the plane, and your choice of movies is "Bride Wars" or "Mall Cop." You figure perusing the SkyMall catalog will be more entertaining, so you fumble for the light switch, and next thing you know, an angry flight attendant is looming over you, demanding to know what the problem is.


You hit the wrong button. Again. But the good news is, that probably won't happen in the new Boeing 737.

I know. I took a tour of the redesigned cabin – and they've got lots of cool innovations that I'm going to tell you about. But I'm also going to offer up some of the innovations we'd really like to see.

Hydraulic drink carts, anyone? But I'm getting ahead of myself.

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Yes, Boeing has redesigned its reading-light switches – so passengers can find them more easily (and quit bothering the flight attendants). But that's the least of it.

The innovation everyone's talking about concerns the overhead bins – they're bigger, but more importantly, higher. They pivot out, so you can stow your stuff – and more of your stuff, too – then, when the bins are shut and pushed in place, voila! You can stand up at your seat, and not hit your head. Sometimes, on a plane, a standing stretch is priceless.

The bins aren't exactly new, though – some of you will remember when pivot-bins were introduced on the 777's some 15 years ago. And the LED lighting onboard the redesigned Boeing cabin isn't exactly a breakthrough either – Richard Branson's been touting the famous "mood lighting" on Virgin American planes since the airline took to the skies. But hey, the more the merrier.

Here is something different – and we'll see it on Boeing's upcoming 787, better known as the Dreamliner – "dimming" windows. These new windows, which are much bigger than the ones we're used to peering out of, have no shades -- instead, you press a button, and the window darkens. It's a "natural" effect – almost as though the sun is going down – and much less claustrophobic than slamming down those plastic shades.

Then there's the "WiFi-ification" of commercial jetliners. I don't think there's a road warrior among us who doesn't appreciate this innovation – and that's one airline fee we don't mind paying for.

Virgin America has said its entire fleet will be WiFi-ed by June – and American and Delta are on schedule to have hundreds of their planes laptop-friendly within the next year or two. Terrific.

As for the new 737 interiors – with its lighting and switches and standing room – most of these will be delivered outside the U.S. to start, and they won't be hitting the tarmac anywhere 'til next year.

But while we're waiting, let's dream a bit. Here are some innovations I'd really like to see.

Hydraulic Drink Carts: They always seem to start the beverage service just went you have to hit the head. But there's no waiting with the Lift Up Carts (patent pending – in my dreams); as you make your way down the aisle, the flight attendant merely flicks a switch, and the cart rises to the ceiling, while you pass underneath.

Cry Rooms: You've seen these in churches – a special section for families with little ones, who can wail away without you having to listen to them. Let's try this on planes, with a special plexi-glass shield that separates the men from the boys – in other words, us adult whiners from the howling babies.

Auto-Clean Lavs: After you exit the lavatory and shut the door, you'll hear this loud "whooshing" sound, and the bathroom is magically cleaned and sanitized for the next user. Drawback: being seated near the "whooshing" sound.

Recline-Only Seating: A special section for those who plan to spend the entire flight with their seats as faaaar back as they will go. This allows non-recliners to work on their laptops without their knees jamming into their chins. Since the reclining crowd will not be able to use their tray tables, beverages would be served via tubes that drop down from overhead.

Interesting innovations, right? Well it's nothing compared what could be coming – Virgin's Branson has dropped hints that he'd like to see onboard gyms, and even casinos! But the question is, will these innovations – real and imagined – save domestic air travel? Will they boost traffic and help pull the industry out of the doldrums?

I say, flying needs to be fun again – and I say, bring on the gadgets (well, everything but the cell phones, please). But as much as I love gadgets, I know for most of us (especially these days), everything revolves around the bottom line.

I'll ask you: would you fly because of a snazzy interior, WiFi and all the rest? Maybe a better light switch will rock your world – at least until that flying casino comes along …

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations, including ABC News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, The Associated Press and Bloomberg. His Web site FareCompare.com offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deal.