Essays & Articles


Trapped in a Lufthansa Airline Seat

Ah, new technology is so full of promise, so short on delivery. I sometimes think the most frequently used button on my fancy new Treo 600 camera, phone, and digital assistant is the reset button, you know, the one you push by removing the stylus from its protective slot, unscrewing the rear tip, realizing that’s the wrong tip, screwing back the rear tip, unscrewing the front tip, using the now-exposed long, slender rod to stick inside the hole on the rear of the Treo, screw back the tip, and get back to work. (The other part of technology is that no sooner does one write about a product then it is obsolete. Now Palm has a new Treo, the 650. It no longer needs any stylus to reset it. All you have to do is take off the back cover and remove the battery. All you have to do? Still seems like a lot. And why do I have to do it at all?) I consider it part of my self-imposed job requirement that I continually purchase and try out new technologies. How else am to know the pleasure — and trauma — associated with their potential and their realization? But recently, I had an experience that tops all others. I flew from Munich to Chicago in a brand new Lufthansa Airbus 340. (the 340-300 model, for those who keep track of such things). Ah, Lufthansa has gone to great lengths to improve their business class fittings. Indeed each seat comes with a 14 page manual.(Oops, 14 pages? That should be warning enough.) “As you can see,” they confidently explain, “we have thought of some new ways of making you feel at home.” Hah! Not my home, thank you. Please, not my home. Let’s start with the nice, large, 11 inch color display in front of each seat. Wow! Not those tiny little, grainy LCDs that most airlines provide. But, oops, consider how one controls it. I have long maintained that the web browser has set back the progress of human-computer interfaces by a decade. In the good old days, before web browsers, there was considerable control over the display, with instantaneous feedback. The web browser took away all of that, in part because the intelligence was in the remote server, so any input had to be sent to the remote location (with a long handshaking protocol), processed, and then sent back, with yet another handshaking protocol and repainting of the screen. Things have recently been getting better, or so I thought. Lufthansa uses a sort-of browser. A cursor is controlled by a weird control button on their remote control, the same remote that controls the seat. There are 21 buttons on the front, two on the left side, a slot for sliding a credit card on the right side, and 6 buttons on the rear. Most of the buttons are multiple purpose and can be moved in several directions, usually four, so the 21 front buttons actually have 38 possible ways of being pushed, with one button sometimes requiring one push, sometimes a double-push. (No wonder it has a 14-page manual, plus a help screen on the seatback display.) And slow? You think web browsers are slow? This one take 15 seconds to turn on, then roughly 3 seconds to paint each screen. The cursor control is so clumsy as to be reasonably unusable, moving slowly across the screen in an erratic direction, but then speeding up so fast that it overshoots the target. It takes about 10 to 15 seconds for any button press to have an effect – even the simple feedback that indicates receipt of the “Select” button takes a second. The sound system is remarkably good for an airline, but my wife and I travel with our own earphones, the Bose sound-canceling ones that not only mask much of the noise of the airplane, but provide far higher fidelity and clarity than even the best of the airline earphones. (I once was seated in the First Class cabin of United Airlines, and when I took out my Bose instead of using the sound-canceling ones provided by United, the passenger next to me voiced his approval. Turned out, he worked for United and was responsible for selecting the earphones and audio system.) But Lufthansa has permanently wired in their earphones, so it took us several hours to figure out how to unplug them and plug our own in. (You have to reach deep down into a narrow slot where the earphones are stored, unplug their triangular-shaped plug and blindly grope about to plug in the new phones, blindly because the slot is deep and narrow and your hand blocks all vision of the bottom, where the plug is located.) Now for that seat. “Hey,” I said excitedly,“ almost as good as those fully-reclining seats in International First Class, the ones pioneered by British Air so many years ago and now copied by most airlines. Moreover, the seats are backed by a fixed partition, so that when the back is reclined, it does not have any impact on the passenger to the rear. So far, so good. I experimented. I moved the seat controls this way and that. Sometimes the set responded, sometimes it didn’t. In theory, the control was correct — organized in the shape of the seat itself (just as I have been preaching) — but the correspondence between the movement of each button and the corresponding movement of the seat seemed arbitrary and capricious. But let me interrupt the story for a moment to say some good words. After all, I have argued that with the arrival of my new book, “Emotional Design,” I am a changed person. No more curmudgeon of poor design, I am a champion of the good. And here I have just been revealing the old Don Norman, not the new. So let me interject praise for all the good things Lufthansa has done. The Seat is a marvelous delight (ahem, when it works, but I’ll get to that in a minute). It is indeed comfortable, with many degrees of adjustment: Twelve degrees of adjustment for the seat, plus a footrest than flips open, plus a message button that appears to have roughly 6 degrees of adjustment. And the standard overhead light plus a side light on a flexible arm. And a headrest that moves up and down, with wings that bend out to hold up the head. The audio and video selections are generous even though it took me five minutes to figure out how to get the menu. There is a remarkable variety of video available, and each one seems to be playable on demand. That is, every passenger can start any movie at any time. (As far as I can tell, once started, it cannot be paused, fast forwarded or backed up, but maybe I just didn’t find those controls.) And there is even a hidden panel for computer support: regular AC power with a plug that accepts “two-pin Euro flat plugs” or “two- or three-pin US plugs.” It even has jacks labeled Internet and USB. The person across the aisle soon discovered that the internet is not yet implemented “Real Soon Now,” is the promise, but hey, give Lufthansa credit. There is even storage space for eyeglasses and for shoes. It’s wonderful. Except it doesn’t work. Take that shoe storage space. We were on a ten-hour flight, so my wife and I took off our shoes and put on the little cloth slippers they provided. But only one shoe would fit into a storage space, and there were only two spaces for each pair of passengers — two spaces for four shoes. Maybe German use smaller shoes than Americans? More likely, that’s all the room they had. And you know that nice, reclining bed? It doesn’t disturb the neighbors, but it certainly uses every inch of space in the compartment. Leave a pillow, blanket, or heaven forbid, your briefcase with your computer laptop in it on the floor and, crush, grind, scrunch. No more pillow, no more blanket, no more laptop. “Please do not leave hand luggage on the floor when using this position,” says the manual next to the heading “Sleep.” But where does the hand luggage go? Up into the overhead compartment? Pain. Between the two seats? Maybe, but the space is only about six inches wide, occupied by the two shoes we couldn’t fit into the platform. Sure the briefcase can fit on top of the shoes, but if it leans even slightly to one side, it gets crunched. Am I being unfair? The seat certainly seemed to think so, so when I got myself into a comfortable sleeping position, I couldn’t get out. I summoned the airline flight attendant who pushed and pulled and then went away. Ah, now the seat worked. She came back and I thanked her. “But I didn’t do anything,” she said. This happened three more times during the flight. The problem got written up. “These new seats are still filled with problems,” one attendant confided in me. But one attendant was even more clever — she showed me the secret. The armrest on the aisle side of the seat pops open, revealing a set of secret controls. She pulled one control up into the air while pulling hard on the seat back and, Voilà, the back moved and then the controls worked. (Hmm, she popped it open, but I just tried to open it so I could describe them to you, but even though I pulled hard, I could only open up a small crack, but the top did not come off.) Four times in all I was trapped, trapped inside an airline seat. Ah, the joys of a technology whose time has not yet come. Kudos to Lufthansa for wonderful flight attendants, for a marvelous meal (prepared by one of my favorite chefs, Guy Savoy), and for trying so hard to make business class seats that truly deliver. If it is the thought that counts, Lufthansa wins. If execution also matters, well, they have some debugging to do.