By Lou Washington

This past week a mile stone of sorts was clearly in view for our friends at Boeing. Their highly successful 777 program started the final build process on its 1,000th aircraft. This particular 777-300ER is slated for delivery to Emirates.

Boeing should be proud of this achievement, the 777 is a unique airplane. It is one of the first airliners that passengers actually participated in the concept and design stages of development. Many of the design elements used in the 777 are clearly present in the 787 and in later editions of other Boeing models.

Boeing 777

Photo by Lou Washington

Customer or user input is just as powerful in the business of designing airliners as it is anywhere else. Any marketer worth a damn will tell you that you can learn more from your customer than anyone else. As a consumer, we all benefit when we participate in the design of products. Companies that have learned this lesson are more likely to be rewarded by increased customer loyalty and in the end, more business.

If the onboard experience in today’s air travel is less than blissful, it is certainly not the fault of the aircraft manufacturers. Boeing and other major aircraft manufacturers go to great extremes to develop interiors that are comfortable and pleasant. Unfortunately, most airline operators undo all of this by turning these magnificent machines into livestock transports.

I’m not talking about the fantastical interior designs that accompany the roll out of a major new model. I know that my airline is never going to equip my flight to Des Moines with an on-board swimming pool or running track. Those are PR gimmicks that generate buzz much like concept cars do at auto shows.

But, Boeing takes the “User Experience” seriously. The Sky Interior program is not just a titillating concept, it is a reality. Softer, more natural lighting, larger windows, larger storage bins, flexible seating, higher ambient humidity and cabin pressure set much closer to normal sea level, all add up to a flying experience that will leave the passenger feeling much better upon arrival.

Any one who flies for a living or who spends a lot of time on airplanes has their own favorite aircraft, preferred seating configurations and more than likely, a specific favorite seat. Passengers who take the time to learn about seating charts and carrier seating configurations are rewarded with a more comfortable flight.

Knowing where the emergency exits are means more leg room, sitting near a galley can mean better drink service, sitting up front on the aisle means you are off the plane first or have ready access to the lavatory. Sitting in a seat just in front of a bulkhead can mean your seat won’t recline. But, seats just aft of the bulkhead many times have more leg room.

When I was on the road, flying all over the country at all hours of night and day, these little issues were very important to me. What was really remarkable to me was that airline personnel knew about all of these preferences. They would frequently help you make sure your preferences were addressed or recommend a close approximation alternative.

In those days my airline of choice was Delta. My airplane was the 727 stretch. Lucky for me Delta seemed to have a limitless supply of these birds and they also were the major carrier serving our local airport.

My preferences were pretty simple. I like a window seat because I can sleep without people climbing on me to get to the lavatory. I like lots of leg room because I like to stretch out. In those days, I smoked and I was sufficiently addicted to that nasty habit that I had to be far back in the smoking section to avoid risking the ever aft moving no smoking border. I also enjoyed having a couple of cocktails along the way so it helped to be close to one of the galleys.

Lucky for me, a friendly Delta Redcoat clued me in to party class. This was their lingo for row 35 on the 727 stretch. Row 35 was located at the back of the plane, there was a row 36 but it was lousy. Row 35 was next to the aft emergency exit and it was just opposite of the port side aft galley. Seat 35-F was the window seat. Row 34 didn’t exist, so a good three feet of deck was completely clear in front of row 35.

The fun started almost as soon as you buckled in. The flight attendants were busy with pre-flight activities, but almost always offered the row 35 passengers a pre-flight drink. Longer flights frequently turned into longer conversations with the flight attendants. This was a great opportunity to learn about your destination, where to go at night, what restaurants were great and what to avoid. There were almost always a few extra helpings of dessert or an extra cocktail available for those who flew party class.

For me, it made all the difference. Weekly or daily air travel is tiresome. It quickly loses the patina of glamour or excitement. But, it doesn’t have to be awful, it can be made pleasant. When I got the 35-F seat on my boarding pass, I was assured that I was going to have a very nice flight.

So, hats off to Boeing and congratulations on number 1,000. The 777 is a great airplane. But mostly, thanks for allowing us passengers to chime in on the design. Thank you for caring about what makes us happy.

You guys are the best!