Sir Richard Branson's seat-to-seat communication devices let you hit on other passengers by buying them a drink
You know those little touch screens on airlines – where you can currently play solitaire or watch the worst NBC sitcoms play on a loop throughout your flight? Well Virgin Airlines is giving them an upgrade. As a promotion for their new daily route between LA and Las Vegas, Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson made a puzzling video detailing the enhanced functionally of your personal entertainment center, a seat-to-seat connectivity that allows passengers to interact.
You’ll now be able to send a drink, food, or a message via your personal entertainment center to another passenger on the flight – simply scroll through the seat map loaded on your seat-back entertainment system while craning your neck behind you to ascertain if that lovely lady is in row 46 or 47, then choose from the array of cocktails and snacks available on Virgin flights. Once you swipe your card, a flight attendant will deliver your offering to the object of your affection. You can even follow it up with some seat-to-seat instant messaging. This service is now available on all Virgin flights.
It’s a smart – if a bit creepy – extension of the idea behind location-based flirtation apps like Grindr. Some lament the end of flying without being hit on, but I actually think Branson’s idea, wacky as it is, is a clever step in the right direction. It’s not as if there’s only one airline; we’ve got choices when we fly. So no one is going to force anyone to fly on an airline where a stranger might try to send him or her a can of Pringle’s potato chips. And if Virgin Airlines becomes the preferred carrier of people who are open to making new friends, or of single people looking to meeting someone, then there’s nothing wrong with that. That sounds fun.
There’s no reason to wax nostalgic about the glory days of air travel. Yes, it once seemed much more glamorous to fly, but far fewer people did it. Now we’re packed in like cattle, glowering at babies, counting the seconds until we hit 10,000 feet and can retrieve our portable electronic devices. Why not add a way to interact for those who want to have some fun? I have to believe that there’s some way to refuse your fellow passengers’ advances. Perhaps there’s an opt-out function on your screen, much like going “offline” on chat apps.
It seems our ability to connect with one another lags behind our tech. To put it another way, the technologies we depend upon and use everyday, in some ways, eliminate the need for interpersonal interaction. We don’t chat with our neighbors on a plane partly because we have technology to distract and entertain us – we bring our iPads, laptops, and P2Ps on the plane – and partly because we’re becoming more and more used to connecting via technology, such that even initiating a friendship or courtship begins to feel more comfortable over a screen.
Now we can argue forever about whether this mode of connection is bad for society or humanity or is turning us into social idiots, but the reality is we are increasingly doing it. The fantastic thing about innovators is that they see the gaps we’ve created, and then move to fill them. Tech can diminish or enhance our connections; it's all in how we use it.
So Grindr-like apps allow people to designate that they’re looking for some sort of romantic connection, then attaches that desire to their location. If you find someone you like, then it’s a quick and easy match. What seems like a vast improvement on the long time lapses experienced on traditional online dating sites is actually just a closer approximation to swiftly making a connection with someone sitting next to you at a bar. Technology corrects the issue it created.
Just because the seat-to-seat communication on Virgin is promoted as a means to flirt doesn't mean that's the only way to use it. What if there were group spaces we could occupy, like an old aol chatroom? We might meet a lot more interesting people as we travel if we had the option to message with them. Ultimately, I think Branson's idea is a smart one that will improve air travel. It's a lot bigger than whether we can send a pre-mixed martini to a handsome stranger. It's about reintegrating personal connections with technological connections.