United Airlines' Polaris business-class seat has a feature that allows passengers to signal to flight attendants whether they want to be disturbed or not. Image: United Airlines

United Airlines’ Polaris business-class seat has a feature that allows passengers to signal to flight attendants whether they want to be disturbed or not. Image: United Airlines

APEX Insight: To disturb, or not to disturb. It’s a question flight attendants often face when it comes to sleeping passengers. But airlines are finding clever solutions to help crew tiptoe around one of the job’s more awkward predicaments.

Before the video-on-demand era, the viewing of films, often synchronized with mealtimes, governed the tempo of when passengers would watch their screens, eat and sleep. But today’s flexible in-flight entertainment, augmented by passengers bringing personal devices on board, allows flyers to snooze at their will – presenting a new challenge for flight attendants.

When United Airlines was designing its Polaris business-class seat, the airline’s crew brought the topic into the design process. “Our flight attendants shared that they wished there was a better way to stay in touch with customers’ wishes on being awakened, versus left alone, for our pre-arrival service,” says Jonathan Guerin, the airline’s communications manager.

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Offered in economy, Etihad Airways’ Sleep Tight amenity kit includes an instructive eye mask. Image: Etihad Airways

The airline experimented with signage that read “Refills welcome” or “Wake me for breakfast,” inviting customers and flight attendants to participate in simulated Boeing 767 flights, and even a chartered B747, to give the concept a go. But it was the illuminated “do not disturb” feature, embedded in the side of the seat, that prevailed. “We concluded that customers prefer that we offer attentive service while they are awake and that the ‘do not disturb’ language was already well understood in the travel industry for those who wanted to extend their sleep time,” Guerin says.

B/E Aerospace, Teague, Panasonic Avionics and Formation Design Group teamed up to tackle the problem via high-tech seat design, too. The Waterfront business-seat concept includes an app that not only controls entertainment, seat recline and food orders, but also has a “sleep and privacy preferences” menu that lets passengers select from “wake up time” or “do not disturb” options.

There may be an app for that, but airlines have also gotten creative with low-tech solutions. Etihad Airways, among others, offers a double-sided eye mask, with one side that reads “Wake me up to eat.” According to one airline spokesperson, “The eye masks have been very popular with guests traveling in economy class.”

“To Disturb, or Not to Disturb,” was originally published in the October/November issue of APEX Experience magazine.