I flew from Vancouver to Palm Springs last month, and at no point did I feel as though I was in Washington or Oregon.

The sense of displacement was striking. Without the passing landscapes and material friction of travelling on land, it almost felt as though I wasn’t even moving. Travelling on an airplane can make us feel like we’re stuck in a timeless, spaceless purgatory, waiting for our destination to come to us.

I was making this trip because I was fortunate enough to be invited to participate in the TEDActive Travel Project. As you may know, TED is an annual conference that attracts idea-minded people from different countries, industries, philosophies and walks of life.

While the flagship conference in Long Beach, California maintains a traditional audience-speaker dynamic, a separate group of people gathers at the Riviera in Palm Springs. These “TEDActivators” lend an ear to live-streamed TED2011 talks while engaging in conversations about everything from poetry to sustainability to travel.

As a user-experience designer, I was paired up with about 15 travel experts: aircraft designers, design professors, human-factors research specialists, and marketing experts working with Delta Air Lines, which sponsored the project. The group also included a few “laypeople” who happen to spend a lot of time in transit.

The workshop started with a structured brainstorm in a formal setting and progressed through a tipsy late-night chat. Throughout the event, participants were sent to gather information and feedback by engaging other TEDActive attendees. When all was said and done, I was given the honour of presenting our vision on the main TEDActive stage.

Our mission? To “humanize” the inflight experience.

Out of control

What we discovered centered around a clear hypothesis: Most of the anxiety associated with flight is related to a lack of control.

Think about it. We show up at the airport hours early without any idea of processing time, and only sketchy information about delays. We hand our baggage to the airline, trusting it will make it to our destination.

We trust security personnel with our bodies, our belongings and our safety. We fly through the air with barely a glimpse of the pilot and sign over our basic urges to sleep, go to the bathroom, eat and drink to the flight crew. As passengers sit disempowered in their cramped spaces, it’s no wonder they often become negative and stressed.

One area where airlines have begun to address the issue of control is in the realm of inflight entertainment. The relatively recent shift from “main screen” movies to on-demand entertainment systems and bring-your-own-screen approaches suggests the industry is moving in the right direction.

The lesson is clear: Not only is restoring a sense of control critical to improving the flying experience for millions of travellers, but it also may be the single most important goal for any airline brand.

Lessons from the tech set

User-experience design is all about putting the user in control. Good interfaces are designed to provide clear and useful feedback, allowing the user to monitor system status and maintain supervision over the computer’s tasks. This way, users remain in control even when the system is doing behind-the-scenes stuff (think of a loading progress bar, Windows hourglass or Mac “spinning wheel”).

Information architecture is created with respect to transparency, enabling users to navigate complex interfaces with their own sense of direction. For instance, here at Sparksheet, you’re able to catch the latest articles on the homepage, or use the categories bar to hone in on your interests.

Similarly, Web content producers are encouraged to use short paragraphs, bullet points and headings, allowing readers to skim at their leisure.

There’s no reason why designing airline services for passengers should be any different from designing technology or creating content for users.

The humanization of flight

Once our group of TEDActivators zeroed in on “control” as the central challenge facing the travel industry, the ideas and recommendations started pouring out. Here are some ways travel brands can make the flight experience a little more human:

  • Enabling passengers to control certain aspects of their inflight environment can give them a sense of ownership over their space. For example, Air Canada’s recently launched Build Your Own Playlist feature allows passengers to preplan their entertainment experience.
  • Establishing an “airborne community” can restore control to interpersonal interactions: What can flight attendants do at the gate before boarding to “break the ice”? We can’t choose our family, but why can’t passengers pick their neighbours?
  • Building community isn’t just the airline’s job. Some frequent flyers and confident passengers might volunteer to wear a bracelet that identifies them as an approachable resource. Not only would this foster community, but it would go a long way in winning the hearts of worried flyers and travellers in need of assistance.
  • Travel brands can distinguish themselves with innovative mobile apps and platforms that let passengers control their experience both during and after the flight. Airlines can provide tools for itinerary planning, car rental, booking hotels, making dinner reservations, ordering (and sharing) taxis and managing connecting flights right from their seats. The list goes on.

Some of these ideas may seem far-fetched, but startups like Planely and Weeels demonstrate the technology is already here. The question is, which brands are agile enough to integrate it, and brave enough to put their passengers in control?