First Click: Planes should copy the cramped and claustrophobic Hyperloop

May 26th, 2016


When the most recent renderings of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies' planned Hyperloop carriage appeared earlier this week, the reaction was mixed. Large touchscreen windows promise to simulate the outside world for passengers inside, but the tightly packed seating arrangement and general lack of space didn't bode well for a particularly enjoyable ride.

But I think HTT has got the right idea. The inside of its futuristic megatrain is cramped, claustrophobic, and creepy, decked out in the kind of sickly off-white upholstery that makes it look like passengers will be sitting inside a sci-fi euthanasia machine ready to be shot into the Sun. But none of that matters because Hyperloops are fast. You're not climbing into an underground tube to be launched along at sickening speeds to enjoy the comfortable seating and delightful ambience — you're doing it to get from point A to point B at speeds human beings probably weren't meant to travel.

It should be the same with planes, but for some reason, airlines have it in their collective heads that we willingly clamber inside devices that harness the totally safe power of explosions because we want to spend grueling hours stuck in tiny chairs watching miniature versions of movies. Their ads aim to convince us that flying is a normal, relaxing, and even enjoyable process, with videos of calm passengers in plush seats sighing, smiling, and all the other things people usually do when they're not suspended a lethal distance above the Earth.

I fear even more for the future, as plane makers patent vast windows and floor-length screens, horrific torture devices that could essentially turn an aircraft's fuselage transparent. Why would anyone do this? What would possess even the maddest of mad scientist to strip away the comforting bulk of a plane and replace it with nothing but the angry clouds and frigid emptiness of the inhospitable skies. The only reasonable way to survive a flight is constant distraction, a bandolier packed with tablets, smartphones, books, and e-readers, or unswerving focus on a movie you'd never watch otherwise. Anything to take your mind away from the fact your body is operating at a height that at which, were the plane to suddenly disappear, the only comfort you'd have would be a few minutes of oxygen deprivation before the ground turned you into human-flavored slurry.

Companies like Boeing and Airbus shouldn't be making their planes more comfortable, more spacious, or more enjoyable to fly in — they should be making them faster. If that means you have to fold me up and stack me like a human Tetris block — as Airbus patents spotted last year suggest the French company is planning — then so be it, just as long as you turn my 12-hour flight into a five-hour one at the same time.

In fact, let's go one better: knock me out and put me in an overhead compartment for the entire flight, just make it so I don't have to sit through a full working day of a confusing mixture of low-lying terror and interminable boredom. I don't care how you do it: slip an IV into every passenger while you're checking for seat belts; offer me a nice whiskey and coke and methadone, or even have the captain greet me with a cheery grin and a metal baseball bat when I board — just knock me out.

If you can't do that, then instead of augmented reality touchscreens showing us the true horror of the skies we're sailing through, outfit your planes with virtual reality devices. I'm talking high-end stuff, here — I want to be jacked into the Matrix at the brainstem, completely oblivious to the real world as my headset allows me to enjoy all my favorite ground-based activities like lying on the floor, sitting on the floor, and not being on a plane.

Hyperloop inventor Elon Musk gets me. Here's a man who looked at the question of mass transit and said, "What we need to do is build a giant underground vacuum cleaner and shoot people through it so fast that they arrive at their destination before their screams do." Elon's not concerned about making the journey relaxing, or enjoyable, or not terrifying — he just wants to help you get there quickly. I feel like if he was born 100 years earlier, he'd be the guy arguing for vast intercontinental slingshots as a means of world travel over airplanes.

I can only hope the Hyperloop is an incredible success when it does eventually open, leading to overnight global adoption, the introduction of undersea tubes connecting the countries of the world, and the returning of sky sovereignty to the birds. Until then, I'll have to rely on the only two things that have got me through plane trips in the past — making deals with any deity who'll listen, and booze.

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