I got a chance to experience the new UAL business class pods on a UAL international flight routed from Zurich through San Francisco to Sidney. As it is one of the first six 767’s out of about 100 with the new Panasonic seat pods, a system-trained UAL employee was on board to answer questions. My observations are:
- Very nice. comfortable. Nice screens.
- The seat pods do not have room for personal effects. The big issue is personal computers. I fly for work every week or so and flight time is built into my work schedule. Minutes I can’t work on the plane are minutes I have to find on the weekend. Because I can’t have my laptop with me, particularly when there’s turbulence and seat belts are required for much of the flight, being in one of these pods means I can’t work as much as should be able to.
- The USB power port doesn’t work yet. It will be a data input port which will let users watch their own media on the screen. That should be fun. Apparently flight attendants are trained to deal politely with unsuitable material.
- The lighting doesn’t give enough illumination to the area where users put their things – near their feet. It’s very hard to find things in a bag, for example, as the spot lighting completely fails to illuminate the zone where you put such things. Carrying a flashlight helps.
- The ethernet connection is dead. A wired ethernet connection has high geek cred, but not connected, it isn’t worth much. I didn’t expect it to be, but it would have been cool. Get the LAN working and let passengers play networked games (even if only with each other) and download from a plane server licensed content. Maybe UAL could make the video and audio content available for download while on the plane with interstitial advertisements, why not?
- Facing seats… hmmm… if there’s a cute person of the appropriate sex facing, that’s very nice. Otherwise one worries about picking boogers. Well, one always would worry about boogers under the facing circumstances but with no mitigating value under typical seating arrangements for the Y chromosome possessing business traveler.
- The remote is cool. Nice implementation. I like that it works docked or undocked and that you get your basic controls in docked mode.
- The forward (or backward, but away from passenger) facing plugs are hard to find. This is the 110V AC, USB, Ethernet, and some strange keyboard/serial connection.
One of the advanced seat trainee’s happened to be on the plane and we had a chat about the pods.
He said that laptop availability was a concession to some of the other functionality provided, but I would argue that it is better to give people their own technology and media than to provide it for them and thus it is better to sacrifice comfort for personal amenities – even lie flat for work time – though I might not come to that conclusion on very long (8+ hour flights).
He also said that Panasonic was enabling host adapter compatibility for the USB port. As much as I want that for myself, there are some risks associated. I can see two full screens and two additional partial screens with the front/back seating. While I am not offensiensitive – many people seem to be looking for something to get in a flap about and there is a non-trivial risk that unvetted content on visible displays might wind up easily wound up customers. While I am vociferous supporter of individual rights etc, if it was my airline, I’d
use 3M privacy screens to minimize the viewing angle on these displays before I’d let Mr. Random 5 drink businessman put his latest Girls Gone Wild video on the seat-back display. I understand privacy screens were expected, but Panasonic does not seem to have delivered them.
Anyway, I’m pretty excited about the new pods and I think they are a big improvement all-in-all, but there are definitely some bugs to be worked out (power, USB, ethernet, privacy) of the current design and some design considerations (personal effects before seat-belt sign) for the next iteration. UAL is trying to make things better for premium fliers and I, for one, appreciate it.