Nearly a century ago, flying as a premium passenger meant sitting in a wicker chair nailed to the cabin floor. The luxury of reclining had to wait for the Fokker F-32, which took commercial aviation into the 1930s with soft textiles, arm rests and slight flexible pitch.

Today, the business or first-class experience is taking a flying leap into the future — beyond seat comforts and gourmet feasts, according to the folks in the digital innovations department at Lufthansa. The German airline company launched FlyingLab in 2016 to take the in-flight air experience beyond eating, drinking, watching movies and getting from point A to point B.

The concept is not new. The last five years have seen everything from the "Penthouse in the Sky" by Etihad to candlelight dinners by Turkish Air to sky-high cocktail bars and showers, complimentary luxury vehicle transfers through an Emirates ticket, and private lounge check-in systems catering to a range of customers choosing to bump up their fares.

However, only Lufthansa has turned the premium classes into laboratories of the future, experimenting with all manner of emerging technology that can be put into action after in-the-air testing.

In 2016, the airline partnered with Deutsche Telekom to create a Fashion Fusion catwalk in the air that demonstrated just how functional fashionable crew wear could become. Cabin attendants were outfitted with uniforms embedded with sensors and bearing cuffs that contained small displays linked with microcontrollers. Several prototypes were presented during veritable fashion show of wearables that ran from Frankfurt to Houston.

Through clothing alerts and connected smart glasses, cabin crew could know who a passenger is, what language is spoken, dining preferences, when the meal should be served and a host of other details without having to disturb the passenger. A passenger in need of something could signal through a variety of devices and the closest crew member would get the signal.

Lufthansa launched its FlyingLab in 2016 and demonstrated just how functional fashionable crew wear could become.


"Our task is simple. We are trying to answer the question of how to create a better flight experience in the future," says Torsten Wingenter, Lufthansa's senior director of digital innovations, who was at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES 2018) in Las Vegas presenting new prototypes and seeking out new technology that might be useful to this cause.

"For a premium carrier, flying must be more than getting people from here to there. It must also be a destination."

If a seat is to be a destination in itself, some of the attractions Lufthansa is looking at incorporating include smart blankets and a head cabin. For increased travel comfort, the blanket of the future would be integrated with a neck pillow, worn like a cape and adjusted to the passenger’s individual need for warmth with temperature controls that can heat or cool. Vibrations in the blanket's neck pillow would wake the passenger gently and at the right time, without a flight attendant having to intervene.

For entertainment and privacy, a kind of "head cabin" is making appearances on laboratory flights. The prototype fits on the top of the seat and surrounds the passenger’s head like a bubble to block out noise, block out visual disturbances and provide a mantle of entertainment or focus that can be programmed to the passenger's liking.

Lufthansa's "head cabin" fits on the top of the seat and surrounds the passenger’s head like a bubble to block out noise and provide a mantle of entertainment.


But Wingenter's teams are also thinking beyond comforts and efficiencies and looking into cabin use. What if the airline cabin is not just a cabin but an event stage? What if you can hold a whole meeting during that time rather than leaving those hours to eating, sleeping and watching movies, he asked. And his teams went to work.

So far Lufthansa has held seven long-haul flying labs using passengers on those flights many en route to high-profile digital conferences such as CES and SXSW to test-drive new developments coming out of the innovations department.

Lufthansa is now experimenting with delivering events, meetings and panels in the air. That means that no matter where a passenger is sitting he or she can take part in a live conference through interactive tablets at their seat.

"We have turned a galley at the front of the aircraft into a broadcast studio and have been able to hold meetings and training sessions right on board," says Wingenter. "Why not turn some of that down time on a 12-hour flight into productive time? We think businesses and corporations would be interested in this idea. And why stop there? You could conduct medical check-ups on board, even take out seats and hold yoga retreats.

"I propose really rethinking the in-flight experience and the airline cabin space and considering what could be done there if there is a willingness to pay for flights as a place to get real-life benefits."