At the end of a tough week at work, you want to relax. You plug your headphones into a device that helps you meditate. Instantly, you’re cut off from the troubles of the world, transported to a quiet, rocky beach in Australia, even though you’re actually surrounded by people in a cramped space. And not just any space — you’re 30,000 feet in the air.
For decades, airlines have tried to differentiate themselves from competitors by offering better prices or greater luxury. Now, airlines are rushing into a new arena of rivalry — fighting it out to offer passengers midair wellness solutions they’re used to finding on the ground. In the process, they’re transforming flights into aerial spas.
In June 2018, Australia’s Qantas launched a guided meditation series for its flights. Passengers can also access an immersive, virtual reality version of the series by downloading the Qantas VR app before boarding. Four months earlier, in February, Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific launched in-flight yoga and meditation apps. Also in 2018, Hawaiian Airlines launched a wellness series on its long-haul flights, where passengers can accompany an instructor in in-flight stretching and breathing exercises. Japan’s ANA plans to offer an app this year that’s designed to help passengers avoid jet lag after a long flight.
Alaska Airlines in September started offering VR glasses to first-class passengers on select flights, while Air New Zealand has given its cabin crew HoloLens headsets to better anticipate the needs of passengers, and is toying with adding augmented reality games. In 2015, Delta launched its in-flight meditation app, OMG. I Can Meditate. American Airlines has now decided it can’t ignore that space — in September, it started offering its own app, Calm. Mindfulness company Headspace found its first airline partner in Virgin Atlantic, in 2011.
It’s kind of an arms race to get any possible advantage.
Seth Kaplan, managing partner, Airline Weekly
Today, Air Canada, Air New Zealand, Air Transat, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Delta Air Lines, JetBlue Airways, Swiss International Airlines, United Airlines and VistaJet have signed on with Headspace, offering in-flight meditation through the app that reaches 750 million passengers each year. Plane manufacturers have joined the chase too, with Boeing proposing projecting relaxing images onto flight interiors, while Airbus is offering a gym in the sky because we all needed one more place reminding us that we never fulfilled our New Year’s resolution.
“It’s kind of an arms race to get any possible advantage,” says Seth Kaplan, a managing partner at Airline Weekly.
That’s partly due to the strength of the global economy. As the American stock market has surged in recent years, airline companies have boomed too, making them flush with cash — and willing to try new things to foster customer loyalty. But there’s also a cultural shift that has airliners changing their tactics. “If you look at airlines over the decades, they’ve always to some degree been a reflection of society,” Kaplan says. “Airline cabins were full of smoke back when everybody smoked. An airline is offering essential oils because some percentage of the population is interested.”
Indeed, the health and wellness market has surpassed $4 trillion, growing 12.8 percent from 2015 to 2017, according to a study by the Global Wellness Institute. Interestingly, the fastest-growing segment of the market was the spa industry, nearing 10 percent growth, while so-called wellness tourism has matured into a $639 billion opportunity.
What’s good for the ground seems to be good for the skies too. Yes, companies have long chased business passengers, in part because they bring the lion’s share of revenue for many airlines despite constituting only a third to a quarter of total flyers. Traditionally, that has often meant a focus on offerings that make work possible at all times — charging outlets, more laptop space, in-flight Wi-Fi. Now, though, more people are looking for ways to take back their time and unplug. That’s leading some airlines to offer new levels of opulence. In November 2017, Singapore Airlines unveiled upgrades to its double-decker Airbus A380, the world’s largest passenger plane: sliding doors and window blinds to separate you from the rest of the world; a leather armchair and a separate bed in a cabin crafted by a French luxury yacht designer; dishes dreamed up by one of eight world-renowned chefs before being served on bone china. Many others are offering wellness solutions instead, like Virgin Atlantic, which now supplies free essential oils to first-class passengers.
This shift captures how the exclusivity and convenience of a special lounge preflight and better meals on the flight are no longer adequate attractions for first-class passengers, says Carmen Edelson, whose Carmen’s Luxury Travel blog has 44,000 followers on Instagram. Nowadays, airlines “are all about creating a memorable experience on board,” Edelson says. The costs of in-flight entertainment and fine foods are also negligible compared with ticket prices that can easily reach the six digits. “The premium cabin accounts for a disproportionate percentage of revenue for a lot of global airlines,” Kaplan says. There’s often also a cost-savvy logic at play. For Virgin Atlantic, the oils are much cheaper than the in-flight massage therapists the airline offered first-class passengers before 2008.
Yet what’s truly revolutionary about the shift to wellness services on airlines is that most offerings flights are serving up aren’t meant solely for high-end passengers, but will be available to economy flyers too.
There are risks to flying high while the money is rolling in. Once airlines establish perks, it’s much harder to scale back when a downturn hits. “It can do more harm than good if you have to take it away,” Kaplan says, because the negative coverage detracts from or even overwhelms the positives. Those are concerns for the future, especially as continued turmoil over Brexit and the U.S. trade war with China could roil markets.
In the meantime, though, expect airlines to keep shooting out pie-in-the-sky ideas. Already, a number of companies have begun advertising themselves as the Uber of private jets, hoping to make on-demand private flights a reality. And what we’ve seen in terms of onboard wellness and entertainment offerings may be just the tip of the iceberg. “Similar to cruise ships, I would not be surprised if we eventually see a form of live entertainment on board airlines,” Edelson says. So while Vegas may have Jerry Seinfeld and Celine Dion, the next stop for the Ali Wongs and John Legends of the world might just be your aisle seat.