On planes, the future is now. Sort of.

T ry to recall the last time you saw an overjoyed throng of people at an airport. Rare, but possible. On a recent afternoon at Washington’s Dulles International Airport, a jubilant group of besuited and stilettoed attendees partook in glasses of wine and nibbled on food aromatic with the spices of Africa. Enthusiastic drumming punctuated the celebration for the commercial debut of Ethiopian Airlines’s new Boeing 787 Dreamliner, as if underscoring the steady beat of progress into a new era of travel.

It was hard not to believe in that progress during a tour aboard the jet. LED lighting and curved ceilings lent a futuristic feel to the cabin. There were thoughtful details: mirrors in the overhead bins so that you can see left-behind items, flexible drink holders that guard against turbulence-induced spills, slightly more spacious lavatories. VIPs excitedly snapped photos.

(nick iluzada)

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How desperate are we for a better flying experience? Perhaps it says something about the state of air travel today that the mere departure of a 787 from an Everett, Wash., paint plant in August was able to generate the kind of news headlines and breathless tweets normally reserved for a Kardashian meltdown. The plane isn’t even expected to hit the skies until October, but that didn’t stop Boeing from holding a webcast for enthusiasts around the world.

Look at the company site www.newairplane.com, and it’s easy to get caught up in the hype. Young, happy, attractive people pose in large, widely spaced bucket seats under a curved, sapphire-hued ceiling.

Well, stow your tray tables and return your seats to their upright and locked position, because for most of us hoi polloi, the future is decidedly less sexy.

“Airlines are getting smarter about how they maximize their opportunity in the economy cabin,” said Bryan Saltzburg, general manager of TripAdvisor Flights, which operates the plane guide SeatGuru.

Added Gary Chris, vice president of sales and marketing for aircraft interior company Heath Tecna, “The trend today is space utilization and asset utilization.”

The Dreamliner won’t be an exception. If you want the space, you’re going to have to pay for it.

So what do the passengers in steerage have to look forward to on the 787 and other new or refurbished aircraft?

Expect to see slimmer seats made with new composite materials, Saltzburg said. Meaning that even if the airlines aren’t actually giving you more total real estate, it might feel that way. Contoured seats will also help with that illusion, according to Chris.

The options expand for those with bigger expense accounts. More airlines have decided to eliminate first class altogether and replace it with tricked-out business-class arrangements. Lie-flat seats are a key amenity in business class — without them these days, airlines aren’t competitive, Saltzburg said. Carriers have also been one-upping each other on the layout of the beds, trying patterns such as herringbone and boomerang-like Vs to afford passengers both privacy and direct aisle access.

The in-flight beds are fairly commonplace on long-haul international flights, but American Airlines recently made waves when it announced plans to offer the seats in business and first class on Airbus 321s flying between New York’s John F. Kennedy and San Francisco, as well as between JFK and Los Angeles.

Travelers in all classes will see more radical space improvements when it comes to luggage storage.

The Dreamliner, currently carrying passengers for All Nippon Airways, Japan Airlines and Ethiopian Airlines, boasts roomier overhead bins that hold larger bags and intrude less into the space above passengers’ heads. The design allows each person to stow at least one large rollaboard suitcase. Boeing’s 747-8, now flying Washington-Frankfurt and Frankfurt-Delhi routes for Lufthansa (a Frankfurt-Bangalore route debuts soon), and the Airbus A380, with 80 aircraft in operation as of July, offer more space as well.

If you spring for a pricier ticket, other innovations will be at your fingertips. Forget overhead storage. Business and first-class seats on an A380 or a 787, for example, may feature more storage around the seats or built-in consoles.

The scene is a little different on the smaller, older narrow-body planes that are the bread and butter of many fleets, such as the Boeing 757s and 737s, in addition to the Airbus A320.

Heath Tecna has developed a new system it’s calling Project Amber. Qantas Airways will be the first airline to feature Amber, designed to replace the interiors of 737s and 757s. Chris said that bin storage on a 737 will go from an average of 105 roller bags to 156. Even better for passengers and crew members: The bins feature an electronic lift assist that makes loading and unloading easier.

Other technology will continue to get a boost as well, especially in the realm of in-flight entertainment.

“Gone are the days when people are strapped in for 10 hours at the mercy of the airlines,” said Linda Celestino, general manager of in-flight services for Oman Air and incoming president of the Airline Passenger Experience Association.

There’s a serious debate in the industry about whether airlines should focus on built-in entertainment systems or move to streaming programs.

Wired systems take up more weight, require more maintenance and can be costlier than a wireless setup. Streaming assumes that passengers will bring their own gadgets, which isn’t always a given among older travelers. For now, Celestino anticipates that airlines will “run with both systems in the near future.”

Virgin America is doing just that with its planned installation of Lufthansa Systems’ BoardConnect platform. Passengers will be able to access the wireless entertainment system through either larger high-definition seatback screens or their own devices. Now testing the system on one pilot aircraft, Virgin intends to install it on all its A320 aircraft by later this year or early next year. Except for some on-demand movies, it will be free.

Other airlines see the expanded offerings as another revenue-generating opportunity. In 2013, KLM and Air France plan to test a new system on several 777-300s that will allow passengers to connect to the Internet through their personal devices. They’ll also be able to use cellphones for texting, all for “a fixed rate,” according to the airlines. Once travelers have connected, they’ll be able to browse an in-flight site that will offer free access to news, online magazines and TV channels with airline and destination information. United Airlines says that it’s 76 percent finished outfitting its 737-700s, 737-800s, 737-900s and nine of its 21 757-300s with DirecTV. Access to the satellite television programming is free in first class and $5.99 in economy for flights shorter than two hours and $7.99 for flights longer than two hours.

Still, these types of entertainment upgrades are more of the exception than the rule. “WiFi seems to be where most carriers are focused for their older aircraft,” Saltzburg said, because it’s cheaper and easier to install.

More people on the Internet will mean more clamoring for juice for gadgets, so airlines will need to add additional power ports. Newer planes, such as the 787, feature USB outlets at every seat. American Airlines’s recently announced fleet overhaul, set to take place over the next five years, will include planes with AC outlets and USB jacks at every seat. Being able to plug in “is just going to become the minimum expectation,” according to Celestino.

To improve passenger comfort, manufacturers have lowered the cabin pressure to an equivalent of 5,000 to 6,000 feet above sea level. The pressurization on older planes can go as high as 8,000 feet, which can lead to ear and sinus discomfort or create complications for people with certain medical conditions.

According to Chris, other quality-of-flight improvements include overhead vents that don’t blow as hard and brighter main cabin and reading lights. First pioneered by Virgin, LED mood lighting will be making its way onto refurbished and new planes. The Airbus A380 features LED lights. So does the 787, which also has large, shade-free windows that passengers can darken with the touch of a button.

Those changes are part of the airlines’ efforts to “create something unique and memorable,” Saltzburg said, because passengers tend to react favorably to things that are visually appealing.

Celestino agreed. “I think the cabin experience itself is what’s going to differentiate airlines.”

 
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