User experience, business class, and want vs. need.

Again I have left this blog too long without a post, and again it is because I have been travelling. As much as I used to love to travel, I am now throughly sick of it — sick of waiting in airport lounges and lines, sick of the poor design of systems that require me to fill out a card when there could be a machine that scanned my passport and boarding card (if you really need my signature, how about I just sign my boarding card?), sick of trying to decide if kohl pencil counts as a liquid (it doesn’t) and sick of answering the question “have you got any liquids aerosols or gels in your carry on?” with the cumbersome “yes, and it is packed in a clear 1l plastic bag”. Many of these irritations could be dramatically reduced by better systems, and in many cases, I could fly business class to reduce my aggravation.

Business class/first class on airlines really are the ultimate sale of a user experience, as opposed to a user necessity, for the vast majority of passengers; the extra movies, better food, and real cutlery are all nice, but they don’t help you to do business any better at the other end. I can’t find any statistics on how many passengers who are flying business class are actually on business, but my guess would be less than half. And lets face it, with business class travellers making up only 10% of travellers, but 35% of revenue (at least in the US), it makes sense to keep the business class passengers happy.

One of the privileges business class passengers get is the exclusive use of a set of toilets for their class. Generally speaking, given that they pay twice what a economy class passenger has paid, this is only appropriate. However, I recently flew back to Australia from New Zealand on the Air New Zealand Airbus A320,and the layout of the plane meant that not only did some economy passengers use the business class toilets, those who didn’t were involved in serious interruptions to service, and a general health hazard.

The A320 has 8 business class seats, and 144 economy class seats. There is one business class toilet right at the front of the plane, and two economy class toilets, both in the tail section (yes, this means that there is one toilet per 72 economy class passengers — this is less than is recommended for restaurants in the American Restroom Code (PDF), though more than is recommended for passenger terminals). There is a single centre aisle, with three seats on either side in economy class, and it’s pretty narrow. You can see a diagram of the plane layout here. Now, the flight I was on was completely full, and as always, the flight attendants began the economy class food and beverage services from the front of the plane — same with tray collection. You can see where this is all going to go wrong: given that the cart was blocking the aisle, and passengers were not allowed to go forward (though some of them did anyway, including one elderly and disabled lady), access to the toilets was severely limited for the majority of passengers for the majority of the flight. Passengers who did need to go could access the back of the plane by having the flight attendants wheel the cart back to the galley, squeezing past it, and going thus seriously interrupting service and coming very close to the food that was being served to other passengers. Once the aisle was finally cleared, there was a significant line of people waiting, all out of their seats and definitely not wearing seatbelts, which puts those passengers (and the people seated around them) at greater risk of injury (and it was nearly made illegal in the wake of 9/11). What’s more, with the prevalence of moderate urinary incontinence at a minimum of 3% among men and women, this had a high probability of causing someone discomfort and/or embarrassment.

It’s all very well to sell an excellent user experience to your business class passengers, who pay more. It’s not appropriate, however, to create barriers to accessing necessary facilities to uphold the exclusivity of this experience. Air New Zealand, and indeed any airline using this aircraft in this configuration needs to consider either offering economy class passengers access to the business class toilets or designing the cabin space so there is alternative access to the back of the cabin or a toilet at the front. Selling a great user experience at a premium is a good idea, but not if it compromises the health, safety, and basic comfort of your other users.


5 Responses to “User experience, business class, and want vs. need.”

  1. 1 Rebecca Thursday, March 13, 2008 at 8:03 pm

    Hmmm maybe there’s a tacit link between Air New Zealand and Connex … When one considers that there’s a distance of 45 km and 60 mins between Frankston station and Flinders Street (not including the loop), and that there are older people and children on the train and no toilets, what happens when the train is trapped on the lines between stations and no-one can get out?
    Exactly the same situation, minus the turbulence and the food. (And of course the potentially exciting destination).

  2. 2 tony Wednesday, March 19, 2008 at 12:14 pm

    From the hair-raising stories I’ve read, Ryanair sounds like an airline run by Connex.

    I checked Qantas and the 737s they fly to NZ have the same single aisle and toilet configuration as you described on the AirNZ A320. Acceptable I suppose for a domestic flight, but as you’ve described, hopeless for an international one. Maybe you should stick with Emerites.

  3. 3 tony Wednesday, March 19, 2008 at 12:17 pm

    Actually, having just checked the posts from Ryanair customers, I think I’m being a little unfair on Connex.

  4. 4 danamckay Wednesday, March 19, 2008 at 12:25 pm

    Mental note to self: Under no circumstances fly RyanAir.

    I would be nice to be able to stick with Emirates, but there are other user experience trade offs with them. Like their flight times and their awful website. If I could convince everyone to stick to Emirates, though, and send Air NZ and Qantas an email about why…well, that might be worth doing. Really, though, access to a toilet shouldn’t be so much to ask, should it?

  5. 5 tony Wednesday, March 19, 2008 at 3:35 pm

    Apparently Continental Airlines has recently added mid cabin toilets to its 737s, now that they’re used on international routes.

    I had some trepidation about flying Qantas to Tokyo last year because I’d read they’d been using older 767s on that route. The flights were excellent on sparkly new A330s.

    memo to self: learn how to spell Emirates

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