Image: Patricio Otniel

APEX Insight: Measuring passenger biometrics could in theory help airlines improve service and prevent medical emergencies – but in practice, is it too close for comfort?

The future of passenger feedback may well be biometric. Rather than reading your tweets, hearing your voice or waiting for the little light above your seat to illuminate, the flight attendant of tomorrow will be listening to your heart, thanks to a responsive cabin.

Biometric measurement technology could allow passengers to physically communicate through cabin elements such as seats or blankets. For example, FlightBeat, developed as a service-design project by students at TU Delft in partnership with Zodiac Aerospace and KLM, uses electrocardiogram (ECG) technology to read a passenger’s heart rate through natural contact with the seat and translates that biometric data into emotional readings. Taking a slightly different approach, British Airways experimented with a Happiness Blanket in 2014. The blanket analyzed passengers’ brain waves and revealed their meditative states, like a mood ring, via fiber-optic LED colors.

Car manufacturing giant Ford has been working on smart-seat technology since 2011, prompted by the desire to monitor the driver’s temperament to disable certain features during periods of stress. In the same year, both Boeing and Airbus filed patents along the same lines. Airbus’ patents would enable flight attendants to know when passengers’ seatbelts are left unfastened, while Boeing’s patents envisage an “anticipatory cabin,” where passengers’ gestures are captured by a seatback camera and analyzed, triggering smart control modules to perform actions like reclining the seat or unlocking the tray table.

Among obstacles in-flight biometrics face are intrusiveness, passenger apprehension, return on investment and government regulation. In the United States, for example, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act prohibits parties from collecting health records without consent. Founded in 2006, a European research group called SEAT studies smart-seat technology for comfort and safety. Early on, the group recognized that the unobtrusive gathering of  biodata would be key to success. For example, ECGs are usually monitored with direct skin contact, which could be too intimate for many passengers, so the group’s research includes investigating the potential of contactless ECGs.

Seats equipped with health-monitoring pressure sensors, temperature measurement and electrodes could one day prevent or detect passenger medical emergencies on board, but these days, it may be easier to leverage passengers’ personal technology – such as Fitbits – and develop apps instead. Time will tell how airlines will keep their fingers on their passengers’ pulses.

“Body Language” was originally published in the 6.5 December/January issue of APEX Experience magazine.