Notes from a recent 6hr flight.

My recent transatlantic flights (Boston – Heathrow and back) were perfectly safe and easy but not very comfortable. Which isn't surprising – economy is all about making us miserable so we might one day upgrade.

Escape into entertainment didn't give any relief, either. The BA flight I was on still uses an ancient seat-back system that is plagued by a slow and clumsy UI, numerous dead-zones in the touchscreen, and limited programming. To give myself something else to do, I decided to jot down all the other negative aspects of the entertainment system. It really was the only way to stay sane.

Annoyance #1: Volume of interruptions

Movies are constantly interrupted by in-flight announcements. These come in at an ear-splitting volume, through your headphones, at some multiplier louder than your TV setting. That’s understandable - you can’t risk someone missing a safety announcement - but it surely could be finessed to the point where people don’t jump out of their seats or worry about perforated eardrums when one is broadcast.

inflight announcement

Annoyance #2: System restarts

The system is flaky and prone to restarts - a couple of times this trip. It takes a good while to reboot too.

Annoyance #3: Repeating adverts

It’s insulting to have to watch adverts before your movie (or your 20min tv program), in a seat you’ve paid $1,000+ for. How much do they make per passenger per flight on the advert? Pennies? Fractions of pennies? There were only 3 adverts, and they play every time you start a new show or movie. On a 6 hour flight that added up to a lot. Let's name and shame:

Lebar “How we gonna get there?” - for burner SIMs. I don’t need your SIM. And if I did, guess what - neither Boston nor Heathrow T5 has a Lebara store, so I can’t even act on it.
Hate factor: 34626 (some points deducted because the song is quite catchy)

"Atlantis-the-resort” Dubai This isn’t the actual advert that plays, but same idea. The ad shows off their captive dolphins. Given the extent to which Dubai cares about worker safety (not very much) I can’t imagine animal welfare is high up their list of concerns either. This ad basically made me anxious for the fate of the dolphins.
Hate factor: 1000000

Edit: more on the Dolphins from The Telegraph.

Compulsory charity advert. In the final half-hour of the flight, another announcement telling us that they’d be overriding the TV again to show an advert for the BA charity (Flying start ) in the hope we’ll donate our spare change or something. Great for BA for doing a bit of CSR and trying to engage passengers in a worthwhile cause, but there have to be more effective and less intrusive ways of doing so. Hate factor: 100, for making me feel guilty about hating an advert about helping kids.

Bonus annoyance: Online Check-in broken

This couldn’t be done if using Firefox. Perhaps because of my ad-blocker, but there was no indication of why and no helpful error message. Fortunately I twigged and switched to Chrome.

Some ideas for improvement

Save our eardrums: If the headset volume is already high, then match the announcement volume to that. Don’t always be 50% louder than the film. Give a few more seconds warning of the announcement - giving passengers a chance to whip their headphones off. Perhaps lead in with a soft tone.

Don’t have ads: I hate the ads, I hate the companies they are advertising, and I hate BA for subjecting me to them. Fuck ads.

Give the system some memory: The inflight system has no idea who I am. It doesn’t know that I flew the other way a week ago, or that I am half-way through Jupiter Rising (don’t judge me!). Some limited personalization based on either seat allocation or even a short-code would be a big help to 2-way or frequent fliers.

Carry out some optimization: The menus and button-presses are very laggy - hopefully the next generation will eschew fancy effects in favor of a snappy responsive set of controls.

Approach charity differently: Don’t interrupt the last part of the movie with an ad. Make the advert optional - a short program we can watch from the TV menu. Ask for the donation at checkout (along with an option to carbon offset) when buying the ticket. Put the money envelope on the food tray. Or by the bathrooms. Or ask people if they want a donation envelope when handing out the customs forms. That’s ideal, as that’s when many people have to go back to their hand luggage to find a pen - easier to get their wallets and purses then too.

Overhaul online checkin: As well as being broken (for Firefox anyway), it looks and feels ancient and it’s very slow. Time for a do-over.

To close

There’s plenty more to unpick about the inflight entertainment experience, but I’ve vented enough here to bring down my blood pressure to safe levels, so I’ll stop.

I can imagine that BA don’t get to update their inflight entertainment system very often, as the UI hasn’t changed in the last 5 years I’ve flown with them. Probably they have to upgrade the entire plane to change it.

Fingers crossed they employ some good user-centered principles in the next go-round and they factor in what the actual content experience will be like (ads and all) rather than just tinkering with UI. Ideally, they’ll carry our their redesign as part of a larger Service Design effort and really make the Economy class the best it can be.

Further reading:

A detailed & well-illustrated article on the state of Economy Class around the world. Sure enough, BA is lagging way behind other national carriers in comfort and amenities.

A presentation from Reaktor on how they redesigned FinnAir’s inflight system.