Air travel’s Holy Grail: Sleeping on airplanes without having to pee

Famed aviator Charles Lindbergh made history in 1927 when he took off from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport for the first transatlantic flight. Nearly a century later, the airline industry still struggles to satisfy the Holy Grail of flying: the flight without incurring any pain.

It has taken years to perfect, and we’re far from perfect.

In fact, it’s been another year of mixed results. By the end of 2018, an estimated nine million of us would be flying for the first time. How will our planes function? Can their engines cope with the salt added to their engines to keep them cool, or do they suffer water loss that causes vibrations?

Has the airline industry really weathered the storms?

Aviation and the weather

The weather has arguably had the biggest impact on air travel during this time. Until it becomes too hot for jet engines to run, and airlines turn to jet fuel, air travel is driven by the weather. But new technology has allowed airlines to divert to alternative routes if a major winter storm is brewing. During the 2013 hurricane season, Southwest Airlines started running its regional flights into Toronto in anticipation of possible storms.

Weather, however, also affects aircraft ride quality, according to Philip Stark, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT.

“There’s a little bit of the weather knob that’s being flicked,” he said. “This is one of the ways we try to avoid turbulence—if we know there’s a storm coming we’re going to run out of runway.”

Heat and stamina

Gravity is always a factor. But planes are a lot taller than we used to be. Planes used to average 150 feet, now it’s 140 feet or more.

“That means having airplanes flying faster means having something to hold on to the entire surface,” said Keith Tracy, founder of Canadian Aerospace, a company that makes aircraft braces.

Other factors, too, can eat into one’s time. Under-10% humidity is a big reason a long flight can be mentally taxing.

Research suggests that this is not a problem just for business travelers.

“Aerodynamically, longer flight is always more of a stressful flight for passengers because of the air turbulence,” said Stark.


The ability to stream all manner of live video is bringing us closer to cockpit life than ever. But it’s having the unintended effect of changing expectations.

For most of the history of commercial air travel, travelers came with headphones tucked into their neckpads, iPods on their headphones, and laptops open to a selection of online shows. But now everything is at the passenger’s fingertips. There’s a movie trailer right on your monitor, everyone on the plane is on FaceTime, and any newspaper has been uploaded to Wikipedia.

The fact that everyone is so close together makes it hard to concentrate on what everyone else is doing. All of this talk of selfies and iPhones slows things down.

“It can always be good to have noise suppression headphones on,” said Stark.

Storage problems

Technology has also increased the need for storage. Over time, we’ve been prepared to put more in our carry-on luggage. But as that grows, there are also huge problems because of long tail haul.

“If you’re flying a three-hour flight, you really need to have your laptop, you need your PC to really read that business magazine, do that research for your job interview,” said Stark.

Technology is helping companies solve some of these issues, such as in-flight wi-fi and better ports to plug in laptops. But it is still a work in progress.

Airbus, which makes some of the world’s largest jets, has made tweaks to the structure of its planes to help it save fuel. But larger aircraft are still facing some of the same problems, says Stark.

“I’m not sure that the overall solutions really exist in the airplanes themselves,” he said.

For now, don’t expect to see pain-free flying anytime soon.

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