Re-evaluating air transport for a better travel
experience for larger-bodied passengers through systems thinking, design research, service design, and product design.
Flex is a speculative air fleet with fat-friendly airplane structures that addresses the challenges fat*-passengers experience in-flight. Flex redesigns the physical airplane structure and the airplane booking experience to reduce physical, logistical, and emotional strain on fat-passengers as they participate in air travel.
*Please note that I am using "fat" as a reclamation adjective similarly to how other people are using the word in the fat-liberation space. I also use this as a self-identifier.
How might we create non-obstructive physical and service spaces that accommodate fat passengers in air travel?
Fat people face documented harassment on flights. This harassment, small seat anxiety, and difficulty in securing in-flight seating accommodation isolates fat travelers and obstructs them from flying.
Making the business case for restructuring
While this is a speculative design, I looked to airline cases of adjusting seat layout in response to customer needs. I primarily looked at the pandemic and saw that Delta was the last airline to keep their middle seat open, and reducing space capabilities. The assumption was that they would end up losing money, but they ended up increasing their Net Promoter Score from the pre-pandemic 40s to 50s to a score within the 70s by communicating that they were focusing on their customers safety. This sets a precedent for showing that listening to customer needs and pain points can end up increasing profitability, which is what Flex would hope to achieve.
Flex highlighted concerns that larger passengers faced for many who had not considered the toll constraint places on larger bodies.
Many responded by noting that the physical seat could be applied to other use cases, such as monetizing smaller spaces for additional luggage capabilities or pet carry-on options.
The biggest concern surrounded pricing on what would be equitable, yet profitable. In further exploration, I would attempt to do more research in what that could look like.
Addressing the needs of the Super-Planner and the changing of the physical seat by introducing a bench seat called for a readjustment of the airplane booking process. By changing the physical seat to accommodate larger passengers, confirming how you book your seat changes and makes it easier for larger passengers to confirm how much space is needed for them. This readjusted booking process also makes it so that the space they book is not two seats, which means that there would not be a precedent to kick a larger passenger off a flight in the favor of accommodating more people to fit the two seats.
Seat confirmation and selection works by picking a bench section, then using a slider to select the amount of space you need by inches, which can be measured at home. Once you choose how much space you need, you can confirm that seat pre-flight.
The Digital Seat Selection Platform
Privacy Screen Implementation
Addressing the needs of the Wallpaper Traveler led to the development of not just developing a longer bench with a track to provide seating adjustments, but also adding on a privacy screen between passengers. A point of hostility that is brought up during flight by other passengers comes from having to share armrest space or touching a larger passenger. With the privacy screens, larger passengers can enjoy not having the fear of sitting next to a passenger who will berate them for their body and be able to sit in peace.
The need to reduce the potential for unwanted close-quarters can reduce hostile passenger interactions through the privacy screen to give passengers their own spaces.
Addressing the needs of the Former Traveler led to the development of remodeling the airplane seat to become adjustable based on a person's size, so that they are allotted the space they need to be comfortable in-flight.
The need to reduce the physical pain of tight seating, which lead to a seat that is one long bench with a cushion with a track in the back to accommodate adjustments.
The Adjustable Track Seat
This user seeks to avoid unwanted in-flight passenger harassment and name-calling regarding their body size and hopes to enjoy a peaceful quiet flight.
🙍♀️ Persona: Former Traveler
This user previously traveled, but over time, the memory of the physical pain from the tight spaces of the seats created a seat anxiety that limits this traveler's abilities to travel via airplane.
3 Main Opportunities
When conducting my research, I saw that the seat was a center for a lot of pain points for larger passengers to the point that I developed three personas based off those pain points.
This user has a high burden of pre-trip planning to account for the fear of being bumped from the flight. They are highly anxious pre-flight about having their trip details changed due to their body size.
The whole flight experience was fraught with unease and anxiety about fitting, extra planning, paying for more, and not even potentially being guaranteed a flight or a good experience.
Fat people are constricted and do not voice the accompanying effects of that state. They are being physically restrained and by addressing that, we can change the system to be easier to fit and also to develop changes in the overall flight experience.
As part of this investigation, I initially came from a place of figuring out where people felt constrained in physical environments. Based on secondary and user research, I determined that airplane and travel seating is especially fraught for larger people because of the tight spaces for long periods of time, which make their body size hypervisible and in close contact with other passengers. Fat passengers on flights face a myriad of challenges, including in-flight harassment, the potential to be bumped from the flights, and physical pain of not fitting in seats. This project aimed to highlight the challenges fat passengers face and to show how one interaction of an experience has a myriad of effects on larger passengers.
A note, during this project and my thesis work, I and the people I spoke with are comfortable with reclaiming the word fat, which is why I refer to the users I worked with using that descriptor. But not everyone is comfortable with that reclamation, so please defer to how the person describes themselves before using that word because it has a history of being used in a derogatory way that many still are not comfortable with being addressed by.
It's expensive to rehaul a plane and airlines, on average, are not the most profitable, but as we begin to reimagine transport for the upcoming age, especially as technology's capabilities begin to expand (and as there is a growing trend of airplane seats becoming smaller) and people maintaining a certain size. It makes sense to reimagine what travel and transportation looks like to actually accommodate real people.
How I began
Process and Research
(Two paragraphs describing the highlights in your design journey.)
Process & Research
There are two critical parts to CARA’s physical shape and functionality that were accounted for in the prototype stages of its design: 1) The soft and collapsible accordion-like center that was developed through the exploration of origami patterns that open, twist, and collapse, which was tested further using nylon fabric, laser-cut paper, and heat bonding tape, and 2) The two exterior plastic compartments and their hinges. The first prototype was constructed with chipboard and tape to emulate both the hard and soft sections. With Rhino 3D modeling and 3D printing processes, I was able to construct the final project in the VFL, SVA’s fabrication lab.
My research methodology was primarily focused on interviewing and engaging women in conversation who would benefit from CARA’s design. I began by reaching out to individuals through a facebook user-group called All Women All Trails: Hiking & Backpacking, an incredible community of over 24,000 women from all over the world who share tips and tricks, favorite spots to hike, and gear reviews. I posted a question there about how women manage their periods while in the outdoors. In just 48 hours I received 200 responses from the community, which became an invaluable survey of diverse user feedback to boost the development of my project. I learned that while many individuals advocated for the menstrual cup as well as Thinx menstrual underwear—no matter where they were hiking or what resources they had access to—several women still used the duct tape/ziplock bag method to store their used tampons and pads.
Research In Summary:
How I determined my findings and validated my process
The number of users I interviewed who have experience with flight-based anxiety because of harassment, constricted spaces, and more.
SUBJECT MATTER EXPERTS
The number of subject matter experts I spoke to in the fields of engineering, transport planning, architecture, and bias research.
SECONDARY BOOKS READ
The number of books I read on the subject of anti-fatness, where it shows up, and how it affects people in social spaces. This does not include the additional secondary research I conducted through academic journals and other media.
COMPETITIVE ANALYSES & USER EXPERIENCES TESTED*
*By user experiences tested, I am referencing the number of airlines where I went through the process of attempting to book a seat as a larger fat-identifying person.
But are these feelings all in people's heads?
No, they are not.
But are these feelings all in people's heads? No, they are not.
Visualizing Airline Refund Policies for Providing Adequate Seating to Fat Passengers
Why It’s Great. (Two paragraphs describing why the project is great, something about the user, the insight, the value proposition. And put a pull-quote in the middle for fun!)
As part of exploring how to create opportunities for spatial access, I decided to do an investigation on seating. Issues around airplane seating came up numerous times in my user interviews. The above quote from a user shows the prevalence of fat passenger harassment and public shaming on flights that serves as a visible indicator of the anxiety and fear fat passengers face when flying.
Additionally, after conducting a fair amount of secondary research, I came across multiple instances of fat passengers expressing that they feel like they are treated worse than human. In one of the books I read, What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat, Aubrey Gordon details encounters fat people experienced while traveling, from being recorded on flights, to seeing insulting text messages from co-passengers, to being escorted off of planes. She recounts how fat passengers were treated more like cargo rather than as people and valuable passengers on their own.
The size of seats on a plane…that’s not fun. I’ve seen many a TikTok about fat passengers and people around them being horrible.