I’LL HAVE A WING, PLEASE!
As the country struggles to get back to work amid the coronavirus pandemic, industries are learning to cope by adapting. Service industries are promoting new cleaning practices. Retail stores are limiting attendance. And restaurants are welcoming diners back, but not allowing them inside—rather, there’s a resurgence of outdoor dining, with sidewalk tables set up under umbrellas and spaced for safe social distancing.
Now another bruised and battered industry is taking its lead from restaurants—the airline industry. “I was out to dinner with my wife,” says Cal Newton, the CEO of Flystar, a small carrier that operates out of Columbus, Ohio. “We were shown to our seat and had a lovely meal. There was a breeze, and sunlight. It was such a pleasant experience that I started to think about how we could transfer it to an air travel setting. The very next morning, I woke up and emailed my team to set up a group call.”
On the call Newton and his team began to explore the possibility of setting up outdoor seating on their airplanes. “The wings are pretty big,” says James Gershon, the head of marketing at Flystar. “I haven’t measured them but they’re at least as big as a park bench. So we sketched out a seating arrangement that would put up to three passengers on each wing, safely social distanced.”
NOT JUST SKETCH!
The team didn’t just sketch out the plan. They put it into practice. Passengers waiting for Saturday’s 2 pm flight from Columbus to Wilmington, Delaware — what Flystar affectionately calls “The Assistant Manager Express” — were greeted by an unfamiliar gate announcement. “Those passengers willing to fly on the wing can earn a voucher for either one free flight or the equivalent value in in-flight on-demand video programming.”
“I made the announcement myself,” says Pamela D’Ora, Flystar’s Chief Innovation Officer. “Drove out to the airport, hopped on the PA, and told people about the new offer.”
At first, passengers seemed shocked, but after a second and third announcement, they began to laugh more comfortably.
George Theiss was the first to approach the counter. “I thought they meant sit behind the wing, inside the plane,” he says. “Of course I did. Who would have even imagined the other? In fact, I didn’t realize it until I was taken to board early, which involved being driven out to the plane, hoisted up on to the left wing, and strapped in tight like I was getting surgery or something.”
“George jumped at the chance,” says D’Ora, “but we couldn’t take off unless we had an even number.” About fifteen minutes later, Henrietta Grady, a 91-year-old woman who was traveling to visit her newborn great-grandchild, made her way to the counter. “I actually thought of going when I first heard the offer,” she says. “I’m a little slow with my walker.” Grady opted in as well, and the Flystar staff drove her out to the right wing. “We needed to put a forty-pound sack of dried beans on her lap so that she balanced off George,” said Gershon. “It was a bit of guesswork because she wouldn’t tell us her exact weight.”
The flight took off and landed without incident, though the new arrangement drew mixed reviews from its early adopters. Theiss reported being “let’s just say a little unnerved,” while Grady, smiling broadly, said that she hadn’t had a thrill like that “since the rollie coaster in Baltimore back in the forties.”
Flystar plans to add more wing seats in the coming weeks, along with additional amenities that will include a tube to deliver beverages and virtual-reality goggles that will give passengers the illusion that they are safely inside the plane.
And they have been fielding calls from larger airlines. “I can’t say which,” says Gershon, “but you would recognize their logos.”
“Everyone seems excited about this,” says Newton. “It’s always thrilling to be at the ground floor of a revolution.”