Should These Airline Patents Be Cleared for Takeoff?

The next time you find yourself sentenced to the middle seat on an overstuffed flight to Dallas, Des Moines or Dubuque, take a moment to offer pleas to the airline gods that most of the patents being sought by kingpin carriers never take wing.

The travel website Skift recently reminded busy meeting planners that, as horrific as it can sometimes be to fly from point Ahh to point Biz, it could become infinitely weirder if some of the intellectual properties at the root of pending patent applications ever hit the tarmac. As well-intended as many of these ideas may seem, the prospect of how they might play out under adverse circumstances is enough to make a frequent flyer flinch.

Take a recent application by Airbus, which is toying with installing (wait for it) bench seating. While the very thought of losing one or both seat arms may seem to some fliers as bordering on physical assault, from the airline’s perspective, it would provide the flexibility to turn a three-seat row into a two-seater for a roomier ride or a family-size four-seater for two adults and two small children.

Prospect: slim. Airlines are (ahem) uncomfortable messing with their seat configuration.

MasterCard also has applied for a place in the passenger-size pecking order. Its application would enable the payment giant to share its cardholders’ physical dimensions with airlines, which would in turn use the data to make seat assignments. How would your card company come by such information, you ask? Simple: they can assemble a pretty accurate estimate of your height, weight and circumference, as well as those of your entire family, from the Stock Keeping Unit (or SKU) numbers on the items you charge and the frequency you purchase those sizes.

Prospect: uncertain. Airlines may balk at paying for data they may not need.

Here’s a patent idea filed by the aircraft seat manufacturer Recaro that’s sure to make an impact: business-class airbags. Unlike the pop-up airbags embedded in the seatbelts of some business-class seats, Recaro’s automobile-style airbags would be installed in seat backs to prevent passengers from making head-on impact.

Prospect: blurry. Its fate may depend on whether airlines could recoup the cost.

You know that barrage of noisy gate seat announcements over the public-address system when a flight is nearly full and passengers are chosen by name to fill the remaining vacancies? United Airlines has filed a patent that would enable them to stop all the squawking and notify the lucky last-minute chosen directly via text or push notification to their phone. Once the passenger accepts the proffered seat, a boarding pass would then be electronically transmitted as well.

Prospect: excellent. In fact, shouldn’t this already be the norm? It’s unclear why this would require a patent.

Finally, here’s a customer service upgrade that all but the most frequent of fliers may find hard to swallow. It seems British Airways would like to learn so darned much about your particulars and preferences that they could envision offering you a “digital pill” to track your comfort from the inside, so to speak. “Digital pills or other ingestible sensors (would) detect internal temperature, stomach acidity and other internal properties, and wirelessly relay this information outside the passenger’s body,” the application explains. The airline would then use this “inside information” to create a “wellness planning module” that incorporates your eating, sleeping and exercise regimen into your upcoming flight.

Prospect: unappetizing – though in fairness, still better than bench seating.

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Jay MacDonald

Jay MacDonald

Jay MacDonald is an award-winning journalist, author and blogger who incorporates humor and human interest into a broad range of topics. Follow him on Twitter @omnisaurus

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