I spend a lot of time on planes and have become ultra-sensitive to changes that can materially improve the travel experience. I am not talking about large innovations, including the bigger, more stable, comfortable and less environmentally damaging aircraft that both Airbus and Boeing have introduced in the last few years. Rather, my focus is on changes that are so tiny and simple — like putting grids on the back of wrapping paper to help you cut straight — that you wonder why they haven’t been around for years.
Here are my current top three:
- Winglets on seats: By providing head support, this little alteration to the top of the seat — which is already available on several airlines, including United — helps you rest your neck and get some sleep. You no longer have to slouch over a germ-filled tray table or bend your body in some strange and painful way. Just decide which side you wish to tilt your head and pull out the winglet for support.
- Toilet pedal: Having been warned about the germ-filled bathrooms on airplanes, I have gotten quite good about using paper towels to open the doors and, more generally, avoid contact with surfaces. But before a recent flight on Singapore Airlines I had yet to find an easy touchless way to dispose of the towel in that small bin with the rigid snapback cover. The airline, often at the forefront of customer comfort, came up with an astonishingly simple solution: a pedal to open and close the bin.No longer are you required to experiment with different ways of getting rid of your towel without touching dirty surfaces and/or exposing your fingers to the dangers of biting lids.
- Pop socket: Affixed to the back of your phone, this extremely simple plastic contraption is a beneficial revolution for those using the “personal device entertainment” option now available on United and some other airlines. Rather than having to hold your phone or trying to balance it precariously on your leg, just pull out the pop socket and place it on your tray table! You can even adjust the angle as you use the winglet!
So, if you are traveling this summer on those filled-to-capacity planes, these three tiny and simple innovations may be helpful. They won’t stop your seat being kicked or calm that crying baby, but they can make your trip a lot better.
Mohamed El-Erian is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the chief economic adviser at Allianz SE, the parent company of Pimco, where he served as CEO and co-CIO. He was chairman of the president’s Global Development Council, CEO and president of Harvard Management Company, managing director at Salomon Smith Barney and deputy director of the IMF. His books include “The Only Game in Town” and “When Markets Collide.”