Making flight fun again

Engineering an improved air travel experience from beginning to end

Tony Velocci
15 November 2015

3 min read

From 3D visualization technology that helps engineers predict and refine passenger comfort in business jets, to futuristic entertainment systems on commercial airlines and personalized navigation tools to speed passengers to their gates at airports, the air travel industry is scrambling to improve passenger experience.

When US-based Gulfstream Aerospace was developing its all-new G500 and G600 business jets, one of its goals was to optimize the aircraft to deliver a unique combination of speed, range, the most advanced cockpit available anywhere and a superior cabin experience.

To help verify that they were creating the best blend of form, function and efficiency, engineers used Gulfstream’s cave automatic virtual environment (CAVE) to conduct design reviews and support systems integration.

CAVE uses a high-definition active stereoscopic projector to display fully immersive 3D images on the walls of a room-sized cube. At different stages in the airplane’s development, engineers use head-mounted 3D glasses equipped with sensors for motion tracking and a control device to interact with life-size projections of 3D models of the aircraft cabin in real time – troubleshooting on the fly, trying various designs, changing fabrics and other materials to experience the overall look that customers have selected for their aircraft.

The immersive experience is generated by real-time 3D visualization software using models created by the aircraft’s design engineering team. Gulfstream’s goal is to drastically reduce the need for expensive physical prototypes as engineers develop what customers had asked for: aircraft with different mission ranges that still embody the elegant Gulfstream experience. The first G500 developed in this way is scheduled for delivery in 2018.

“This is a very powerful, world-class engineering application that is helping us to speed up the design process, but we’re still improving it,” said Fernando Toledo, a Gulfstream Aerospace engineer who specializes in virtual reality simulation. “The ability for us and our customers to be able to experience the product through full immersion in photorealistic three dimensions is invaluable.”



Gulfstream’s CAVE is just one example of how aviation companies — from original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to airports — are using technology to improve air travelers’ experiences from departure to arrival. The goal: to delight customers, differentiate themselves from the competition and decrease time and cost to innovate.


Innovation that appeals to the customer’s appetite for technical advances and a superior user experience drives ferocious competition among business aircraft manufacturers, with communications and in-flight entertainment systems that replicate or even exceed what consumers enjoy on the ground.

Canada-based Bombardier, for example, is the first business aviation manufacturer to offer the JetWave Ka-Band satellite connectivity system developed by Honeywell Aerospace on some of its long-range models, including Bombardier’s Global 5000 and Global 6000. Starting in 2016, this capability will provide business jet passengers with high-speed, in-flight Internet connectivity virtually anywhere in the world.

“Our customers want to be online everywhere they go,” said Tim Fagan, manager of Industrial Design on the Global 7000 and Global 8000 projects. “Soon they will experience the same level of connectivity in the air that they have come to expect in their home or office.”

Commercial airlines are under similar pressure from their customers to introduce new technologies faster, according to Yann Barbaux, chief innovation officer for Airbus, which builds commercial aircraft for airlines worldwide. As a result, Airbus wants to shorten the cycle time for integrating innovations throughout the aircraft it builds, dropping it from a span of two to three years to a span of only a few months, he said.

To help achieve this goal, the airplane builder is increasing its use of both automation and robotics. In addition, Airbus, supported by its technology vendors, is exploiting the use of advanced software to help airline customers improve flight operations – including which type of aircraft will provide the most economical service on particular routes. “Digital technologies are evolving ever faster, and we intend to lead this evolution,” Barbaux said.

British Airways also intends to be a pacesetter. The commercial carrier effectively reinvented its first-class cabin in the new Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner it operates, with individual suites that allow passengers to experience gate-to-gate entertainment without having to stow their television for takeoff and landing. In-flight entertainment is controlled using a new handset similar to a smartphone that is integrated into the seat. In addition, passengers can dock the handset, allowing them to use one menu option on the handset, such as the moving map, while watching something else, such as a movie, on the 23-inch fixed screen. Discreet stowage areas adjacent to each armrest conceal convenient power outlets.


On the ground, airport connectivity is set for a boost in the fall of 2015, when a joint task force of airports, airlines and SITA, a specialist in air transport communications and information technology, is scheduled to publish a set of standards and governance rules for how wireless technology should be used at airport terminals.

When a passenger is in the vicinity of an iBeacon — compact, battery-powered Bluetooth transmitters placed in strategic locations throughout the terminal — an airline or airport-developed application on his or her mobile phone “wakes up.” At London’s Gatwick Airport, beacons identify travelers by their smartphones and provide GPS-style directions to their gates, pointing out food or shopping along the way.

Some airports, including Dulles International near Washington, DC, use facial recognition systems to speed passengers through passport control. The objective: to make airports more hospitable, speed up travel and enable air travelers to interact with their environment and — as unlikely as it may sound — make air travel enjoyable again.

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