The airline reimagined: Is this the future we've been asking for?

Updated 19th November 2015
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poppi airplane full view
The airline reimagined: Is this the future we've been asking for?
Could this be the Uber for airlines?
Start-up "Poppi" imagines the airline of the future, where customers can fly "cinema class," where the getting the dreaded middle seat means you win sponsored treats, and where baggage is dropped off when you leave home -- and reappears at your hotel.
Teague, the design consultancy behind the Boeing Dreamliner's spacey interiors, have created Poppi to challenge the world's airlines to listen to travelers' age-old complaints and come up with surprising solutions.
The business hopes to bring the same disruption to the airline industry that Uber brought to taxis and AirBnB has brought to hotels -- but all without Poppi ever having to enter the market.
Devin Liddell, the principal brand strategist behind Poppi, explains: barriers for smart thinking start-ups wanting to enter the airline industry are big but he wants airlines to anticipate the kind of smart disruptive interventions that a start-up competitor could make.
"What we wanted to do with Poppi is envision those disruptions now so that airlines operating today can start implementing them," Liddell says. "The airline business model and how airlines operate both present a lot of opportunities for reinvention."
"A lot of these opportunities -- like how airlines handle baggage -- are obvious because the current model is broken or, at the very least, doesn't serve passengers very well. Other opportunities are less obvious and require some big thinking about what will happen a decade from now."
Basic improvements like minimizing the tiresome "gate lurking" wait before boarding the flight are achieved by apps feeding real-time information. Baggage is tracked safely by RFID tags, so that it can be dropped off as early as possible -- at train stations on the way to the terminal, perhaps -- and returned to hotels on the other side. (See gallery at top for full list of improvements.)
Teague says Poppi's class system would focus on providing different experiences, rather than quality tiers. "Cinema class" -- where "exclusive" media takes center stage -- is joined by a a"click class" for frequent short haul fliers, where convenience is top priority, and specially designed smart baggage "clicks" into place. Then there's "promotional class" for the middle seat of the row, which invites brands to partner with the airline to offer special gifts and services for the "unlucky" flier.
For Teague, the challenge was to offer a better experience for customers without increasing costs, in an industry where carriers' profit margins are typically narrow. Interventions that reduce cabin weight -- by eliminating unnecessary carry-on luggage and storage -- and passenger time delays are among Poppi's suggestions. Liddel explains that "everything we did was focused on helping airlines improve the passenger experience while also improving their bottom lines."
It might only be an outline of "the airline of the future" but Liddell wants the airlines to listen, and Teague's longstanding influence on the look and feel of the aviation industry backs him up. The brand consultancy helped shape the current state of passenger experience through the five-year collaboration with Boeing for the launch of the 787 Dreamliner, and earlier classic interior cabins for the 707 and 747 planes.
The company takes pride in its record but, Liddell explains, "the biggest mistake any business can make is to believe in the illusion of constancy -- the idea that things won't change, because they always do."
Liddell explains what Poppi hopes to achieve, without the start-up ever having to start up.
CNN: What do you hope these changes will achieve?
Devin Liddell: We want to create a vision for a different way forward. One of the reasons we worked very hard to demonstrate Poppi as an actual, real-life airline was to show how that vision could be implemented. More than anything, we want airlines to look at Poppi and find inspiration for how they could change how they do things for the better, now and in the future.
We wanted to prototype innovations that airlines could make their own. The innovations we're showing with Poppi are meant to provoke important discussions inside airlines about how they operate, because our present is not necessarily our future. In my opinion, innovation is always about challenging the status quo and illuminating a better way forward. That's what we did with Poppi.
How would airplane travel be different if you redesigned the industry?
First, the airline industry would be a lot better at delivering services across the entire passenger journey, and especially all those in-between moments -- for example, the time spent at the gate, the links between the aircraft and where people are headed after, whether that's home or a hotel. We call this "designing for the seams." The point is not to create a seamless experience.
The point is to create better seams. The services airlines would offer within those seams need to better, both now and in the future. And a lot of that will be accomplished through technology and partnerships. Second, airlines would be a lot more differentiated. Airline brands are not brands that consumers really love even though airlines do things that are really amazing. So we need to design more love into the industry. That means fundamentally changing the industry's posture from taking to a posture of giving.
As an example, airlines make a lot of money on bag fees, but we need to design ways that make money by actually adding value to people's lifestyles versus just adding a fee for this and adding a fee for that. I fervently believe airlines could be even more profitable by making money in other ways that passengers would actually love. Third, we would make the industry more member-focused.
Adding membership models to the airline industry would be really transformative, both for airlines and passengers. Membership would create ways for passengers to participate in ways they aren't allowed to participate today.
For example, membership models could give passengers the ability to resell tickets, or swap seats more easily, and the platforms for doing those kinds of things would create different revenue streams for airlines. Most importantly, membership models would engage passengers in ways that go far beyond today's "loyalty" programs.
Is this something that's really going to happen?
Yes, but maybe not in the ways people might expect. The ideas at the heart of Poppi will ultimately be accomplished within airlines operating today and perhaps a few start-up airline brands, and they'll happen more gradually than if Poppi started flying tomorrow.
The innovations we're talking about will absolutely happen, but it will be up to individual airlines to sort out what those innovations mean to them specifically. We believe these ideas are better for airlines and better for passengers. Implementing them will take some time. But we wouldn't have brought them to life through Poppi if weren't absolutely convinced that these disruptive ideas will happen one way or another.