Young child looking out the window of an aircraft taking off.

Revisiting the promise of family zones on planes

Recent discussion about Japan Airlines’ (JAL) reservation system innovation, which shows where children are booked on the aircraft seat map, presents an opportunity to review the concept of the family cabin. The main attention given to this feature, shared by an observant frequent flyer on Twitter, is that it would allow passengers to avoid children seated nearby.

While it’s a feeling many adults who fly can relate to, it misses the significant inconveniences that families traveling with children suffer through. Airlines appeal to families in their advertising, but they fail to make room for families on the plane. Sometimes families are separated. There are a limited number of bassinets available, and no safety seating or harnesses provided for smaller children. Parents also receive mixed messages about what safety seating they are allowed to bring on board.

Business travelers carry the bulk of airline costs by paying higher fares so it’s understandable that much more time is spent on designing business class seats than on family features. But as the Japan Airlines’ reservation system suggests, making room for families on board could appeal to business travelers too.

We have seen a number of proposals over the years for family cabins, though they haven’t quite taken off. Thomson Airways had considered adding family booth seating in 2014, but the project seems to have quietly made its way off the drawing board. RGN did reach out to Thomson for an update on the status, but did not hear back in time for this story.

Thomson, now known as TUI Airways, is primarily a leisure carrier. As such, its decision to abandon the family booth might be discouraging. But the certification requirements for face-to-face seating may simply have made this configuration impractical. A revised separation to protect from head impact was the primary reason why Southwest Airlines abandoned its face-to-face seating in the late 90s.

But face-to-face seating is not the only solution. Air New Zealand proved that with the introduction of its innovative Skycouch, further enhanced by the recent addition of the Cuddle Belt. Air France’s former millennial brand Joon had intended to offer  similar “Cosy Joon” seating using Geven’s Piuma Sofà.

Airlines could go one step further by creating a separate “family economy” cabin that would feature couch-style seating as well as special services, including special meals, entertainment and other amenities, with enhanced storage for child carriers and luggage.

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Combining a couch-style product in centre rows with flip-up economy seating, as developed by Rebel.Aero, could improve accessibility and space utilization in the cabin while offering greater security for those parents traveling with children who are not yet tall enough for a full-sized seat.

With the introduction of the QSuite, Qatar Airways has made a bet that a family product could be up-scaled to earn higher fares, and hedged its bet somewhat by making the product versatile enough to accommodate business groups or couples. While this might be a solution for more affluent families flying together, particularly those with older children, the price differential will put it out of reach of the average family.

A dedicated family economy cabin on routes with the highest demand could bridge a gap in service, just as Premium Economy has done for those unable to afford business class but who seek to avoid the tight quarters of coach. And airlines could benefit from greater efficiencies in serving these customers.

Seat gaps could still be filled with single ticket sales of an unbundled Basic Economy product. Business travelers flying with economy tickets will appreciate the opportunity to book a separate “quiet zone” and airlines can combine these two concepts on the same aircraft.

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