Getting Air Travel Ready for the Baby Boom Generation

Getting Air Travel Ready for the Baby Boom Generation

The nation's 77 million baby boomers will begin hitting their 60s next year, but it doesn't mean their interest in traveling, to experience new sights and sounds, is diminishing.

A new ABC News/"USA Today" poll of older Americans found not being able to travel on their own as a top concern. Now, the rush is on to make air travel friendlier for seniors.

Boeing is conducting research about how to better accommodate older passengers, and it expects to turn those needs into changes in airplane design.

As part of its study, Boeing design engineers wore goggles to distort vision and padded suits to simulate arthritis and limited mobility. Onboard the airplane, they struggled to find seats, store luggage, adjust the air flow, and maneuver in the restroom.

Boeing hopes the experience will help their engineers empathize with the needs of aging baby boomers.

The challenge is to improve the design of airplane interiors to make them more comfortable and accessible for older people, but without making passenger feel old.

"You cannot make a product look geriatric because nobody wants to say 'I'm getting old,'" said Boeing senior engineer Vicki Curtis.

A Client Base That Can't Be Ignored

Boeing recognizes it cannot afford to have boomers take their trillion dollars in spending power elsewhere.

"It's folks over 50 that have the most desire and most wealth to travel for travel's sake," said Dr. Joseph Coughlin, founding director of the AgeLab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "So, this isn't just a matter of social policy; it's good business."

So designers are experimenting with easier latches, better signs, and they are attempting to create the ultimate airplane bathroom -- roomy and well-lit, with designer grab bars and touchless operation.

"If we don't do something, you are going to have 60 percent of the population that can't go anywhere," said Boeing engineer Delores Lystad.

Boeing promises its next generation of planes will be more "age friendly." Now, if someone can just figure out an easier way to open the pretzel bags.

ABC News' Barbara Pinto filed this report for "World News Tonight."