If British Airways could wire up its passengers to in-flight lie detectors, would it? Before this weekend, the idea might have sounded preposterous. But that was before the airline rolled out a video promoting what it calls its “Happiness Blanket.”
The idea is simple and straight out of 1984. Upon boarding, passengers are given a headset that “measures the electrical fluctuations of the neurons in the brain” and then transmits that data to a wool blanket threaded by fiber optics that change colors with a passenger’s measured mood. If you feel a sense of well-being (due to, say, to a business class seat and a cocktail), the blanket turns blue. If, however, you feel stressed (perhaps because of a chatty seatmate), the blanket turns red.
According to a journalist who was invited to try out the blanket last week on a trans-Atlantic flight, British Airways says that it is currently using the blankets for the purpose of “assessing the reactions of selected passengers to different in-flight services.” Don’t like the London to New York wine list, but too polite to object? Never fear, the blanket will turn as red as the vintage you desire. Developed a crush on the handsome flight attendant handling the cheese course, but don’t know how to tell him? The deep blue romantic glow of the blanket will peacock it for you (but don’t eat the cheese course -- it allegedly turns the blanket red).
As of now, the airline says it has no plans to make the blankets a regular feature. Still, arguably, this is a compelling future for air travel -- especially for the terminally shy, the passively aggressive, and Facebook users who could care less about privacy settings. Why speak when your blankie will do it for you? Yet there’s also something sinister about the idea -- starting with the fact that British Airways so mistrusts the feedback of its customers that it’s resorted to asking for access to their brainwaves.
And not just any passenger brainwaves, either. Take a close look at the video the airline posted this weekend, and especially the glasses of champagne and the lie-flat beds that the selected passengers enjoyed during their London-New York flight. That isn't economy -- it’s business (Club World, in BA parlance) with all of the expensive amenities. Likely, the only passengers not experiencing a sense of “well-being” on that flight were those who overdid it on the pâté.
So what, then, of the poor souls in economy? Does their well-being matter to BA? The airline says it’s planning to test the blanket in economy. But it’s telling that it shot the Happiness Blanket video when the trials were still in business. What was the rush? On the Boeing Dreamliner that flew at least one of the happiness blanket trials, the economy seats are 3.5 inches more narrow than those in business, with less than half the legroom. They also don’t get cheese courses, free glasses of champagne, and lie-flat beds. In other words, a business-class-blue Happiness Blanket risks being transformed into row after row of bright red Unhappiness Blankets in the cheap(er) seats. That might be more truth than BA can handle.
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Adam Minter at firstname.lastname@example.org
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