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ZeroG’s Aman Bhattarai and Gerhard Kaltenborn discuss improving on-time departures using artificial intelligence during a segment of LH452’s FlyingLab. (Photo: AirlineGeeks

Inside a FlyingLab: Lufthansa’s Unique In-Flight Conference Experience

When Lufthansa began flights to San Jose, Calif., the carrier knew it had to do something unique to celebrate the newly established connection to the tech-focused Silicon Valley region. As airline officials began brainstorming how to mark the new service, the team wanted to create something innovative that no one else was doing. Despite being hesitant at first, on July 1, 2016, Lufthansa’s inaugural FlyingLab flight took off.

Focused on virtual reality and the future of travel, the flight was a hit among the various participants and quickly created a platform which could be emulated on future flights. Even though Lufthansa no longer flies to San Jose, the FlyingLab stuck around and has since become the airline’s open innovation platform with multiple flight events held each year.

Since its conception in 2016, the airline has held over 12 FlyingLabs from its hubs in Frankfurt and Munich to various destinations in the U.S. including Austin, Houston, Boston, New York, Orlando, San Francisco and Los Angeles. AirlineGeeks was recently invited by Lufthansa to get a behind-the-scenes understanding of a FlyingLab flight and the efforts it takes to create a production of this scale.

Airport Activities Kick-off a Unique Flight

It was a typical Saturday morning at Munich Airport’s Terminal 2 as passengers checked in for their flight to Los Angeles. Behind the scenes, teams from various agencies within the Lufthansa Group were hard at work preparing final last-minute touches for this special flight.

The Airbus A380 that would host the FlyingLab flight to Los Angeles onboard LH452. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Mateen Kontoravdis)

Well before the actual FlyingLab flight, members of the FlyingLab team visit the aircraft type they plan to conduct the event on in the maintenance hangar. Here, the team outfits the aircraft with all the cameras, cables and other tech they plan to use for the main event. All the systems are tested to ensure everything will work as expected while the aircraft is airborne.

German aviation regulators and Lufthansa Technik members are involved in this test run to ensure all safety regulations are followed and that the FlyingLab does not pose any risk to the normal operations of the aircraft. Once the test run is a success, the FlyingLab is ready to take-off.

On the actual date of the event, the FlyingLab team has less than an hour to outfit the aircraft with the same equipment used in the hangar test run. D-AIMG, an Airbus A380 sporting Lufthansa’s new livery, was the aircraft assigned for our flight.

In preparation for the FlyingLab, Lufthansa created a festive atmosphere at gate L28 in Munich Airport. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Mateen Kontoravdis)

Lufthansa’s September FlyingLab was a pre-conference for the Airline Passenger Experience (APEX) Exposition, the airline industry’s largest customer and passenger experience event. The festivities for this special flight began at gate L28 where a stage was set up, food and drinks were on offer and vendors were showcasing technology which they planned to showcase in-flight.

Passengers quickly began interacting with the various technology on display at the gate prior to the FlyingLab. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Mateen Kontoravdis)

As unassuming passengers began trickling into the gate area, many soon realized they were in for a treat. Flight LH452 is a regularly scheduled Lufthansa flight so many passengers were unaware of the special flight they had chosen to be on, despite the notice that the carrier has on its website when booking a FlyingLab flight.

Artist duo Gregor Praml and Sascha Wild kicked off the gate event with a musical performance. The two were challenged by Lufthansa to create a sound concept using the sounds produced by the various components of an Airbus A380, the aircraft hosting the event. Despite the tough challenge, the two delivered a phenomenal piece for the passengers and guests in attendance.

Lufthansa Systems CEO Olivier Krüger, FlyingLab host Dr. Jörg Liebe and APEX’s Media Director Maryann Simson welcome passengers to LH452’s FlyingLab event. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Mateen Kontoravdis)

Prior to boarding the flight, Lufthansa Systems CEO Olivier Krüger and FlyingLab host Dr. Jörg Liebe delivered a welcome address and explained what the FlyingLab is and its objectives to the passengers who would soon experience it live. Among the passengers were some who had specifically booked this flight to be a part of the APEX pre-conference.

A welcome aboard message for passengers onboard LH452. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Mateen Kontoravdis)

Despite a late boarding. the aircraft was lined up for take-off on Runway 26R in no time at all. Once reaching our cruising altitude, flight attendants sprung into action to complete the first meal service in preparation for the event ahead.

While the cabin was eating, members of the FlyingLab crew made final preparations for the live stream which was scheduled to start after the first two hours of the flight. Even though Munich to Los Angeles is an 11-hour flight, the U.S. requires Lufthansa workers to apply for work visas if the FlyingLab is occurring over U.S. airspace so the production had to be completely finished over two hours prior to landing while over Canadian airspace.

The FlyingLab Goes Live

In an effort to maximize efficiency and ensure everything operated smoothly on the flight, Lufthansa staffed two additional flight attendants, including one who also works in the press division for the airline. This was on top of the standard 20-member flight attendant crew required to operate the A380.

The production team prepares to commence the FlyingLab live stream onboard LH452. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Mateen Kontoravdis)

Luckily, it was a beautiful day to fly as for safety reasons, the FlyingLab team would have had to cancel the event and store all of the set equipment if the captain had turned on the seatbelt sign at any point in the flight. Despite a little bit of rough air, the pilots did a fantastic job finding a smooth path for us.

Front row view of the FlyingLab live stream from my seat on board the A380. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Mateen Kontoravdis)

As we began our Atlantic crossing, quiet on the set was called and within minutes, cameras were rolling. The moderators welcomed all the live viewers and the first presenter was called to the stage. Krüger explained to me that the A380 is the easiest aircraft to do a FlyingLab on due to its size.

View of the small economy cabin on the upper deck where the FlyingLab live stream was hosted. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Mateen Kontoravdis)

The configuration of the aircraft is also ideal for production since the 35-seat rear economy cabin creates a secluded setting that is convenient for filming purposes. Despite the limited area compared to a studio, Lufthansa had a dedicated camera crew switching between a fixed camera and hand-held cameras to vary the shots in the stream.

With this FlyingLab’s focus on the next generation of passenger experiences, many speakers and presenters including Jeffrey Goh, CEO of Star Alliance and Ingo Wuggetzer, Vice President Cabin Marketing at Airbus were in attendance. Goh touched on the vision of streamlining services that Star Alliance offers both online and at airports around the globe through various innovations such as biometrics.

Star Alliance CEO Jeffrey Goh presenting live during the FlyingLab to Los Angeles. Photo: AirlineGeeks | Mateen Kontoravdis)

In short, he used the FlyingLab to announce plans to pilot a program at an unnamed Star Alliance hub to fix small problems such as having to show your boarding pass at a duty free shop when purchasing items while in the long term continuing to develop systems to allow passengers and data to be easily connected between the 27 partner carriers.

Watching live as Ingo Wuggetzer, Airbus Vice President Cabin Marketing, gives a presentation for the FlyingLab. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Mateen Kontoravdis)

While focused on passenger experience, there was a vast variation in the discussion, truly touching on all aspects of the passenger experience. Ansgar Lübbehusen, Head of Marketing and Communications at Lufthansa Systems and Paul Staadegaard, Chief Commercial Officer for Gladi8tor holding BV, discussed making gaming an interesting and relevant aspect of travel experience while Ulrike Behrens, Head of Corporate Marketing at Lufthansa Technik, gave a look into the impact VIP aircraft have in the traveling experience. These were just a few of the many speakers and topics discussed during the flight.

New Tech, A Performance and a Workshop

No passenger-focused conference would be complete without actual displays of new technologies. Three German companies were at the gate and onboard the flight showing off their innovations to passengers which they hope will improve the overall travel experience.

AERQ, a joint-venture between Lufthansa Technik and LG Electronics, was showing off its new ultra-thin OLED welcome board near door L2. Despite being a welcome board, it could only be displayed during the flight as its mount had not yet been certified for take-off and landing.

AERQ’s ultra-thin OLED welcome board on display inflight onboard LH452’s FlyingLab. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Mateen Kontoravdis)

During our flight, it did not do much beside cycle through a powerpoint highlighting Los Angeles, but the start-up claims this is just the first step in digitizing the cabin. The screen, however, looked very sharp and gave a unique feel to an otherwise basic aircraft entrance area.

AERQ expects to see the welcome board on regularly scheduled flights in the next two to three years, with more products coming online as well by then. The company plans to introduce other cabin concepts in the near future as well such as curved ceiling screens which can be used to display an array of stuff from mood lighting to advertisements.

Pocket Sky’s wearable technology was on display throughout the FlyingLab and aims to reduce jet lag for passengers traveling between time zones. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Mateen Kontoravdis)

Pocket Sky, the world’s lightest light therapy solution, was also available for passengers to experience. The company currently offers a 20-minute daily therapy session which can help brighten your mood and enhance your performance and concentration.

Most importantly though, Lufthansa sees this product as something that could one day be offered for its passengers because the technology helps reduce jet lag. Lufthansa is not the only one focused on reducing jet lag though as United Airlines recently inked a partnership with Timeshifter, an app that helps you best adjust to a new time zone.

A Brainboost employee shows the company’s product to a passenger of LH452 while at the gate in Munich. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Mateen Kontoravdis)

Brainboost, a Munich-based neurotechnology company, wants to improve passengers’ well-being and performance through brain training. The company is developing individually customized training protocols that can increase mental fitness, similar to how working out helps you become physically stronger. While the company is still developing its training programs, it is exploring how its product could be applied to the airline industry.

Walking through the aisles of the A380, there were many passengers glued to their screens enjoying the live stream, which was available for free for all passengers on board the flight. During the 2019 March SXSW FlyingLab, Lufthansa recorded 98 percent of passengers onboard utilizing the streaming service to watch the conference, even with other entertainment options offered.

No FlyingLab is complete without a live music performance. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Mateen Kontoravdis)

In addition to the live performance at the gate, Praml and Wild held a silent inflight concert as well. This was unique as the passengers had to be listening to the live stream to hear the sounds they were producing.

Passengers grouped together to create a collaborative vision for a future version of Lufthansa’s in-flight entertainment system. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Mateen Kontoravdis)

Guido Woska, head of Passenger Experience Design at Lufthansa Group, also held a design workshop for passengers onboard the flight. The hour-long session was a first for FlyingLab and focused on the future user-interface of Lufthansa’s seatback in-flight entertainment screens. Excited passengers formed teams and drew what the ideal seatback TV would offer for an international flight like the one we were one.

Passengers teamed up and designed their ideal interface for Lufthansa’s in-flight entertainment system. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Mateen Kontoravdis)

A common theme among the proposals was access to streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu. One team even proposed a Tinder-like app for the aircraft where passengers can meet and connect with others traveling to the same destination.

An excited passenger takes a selfie with Lufthansa Group’s Guido Woska after participating in his workshop. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Mateen Kontoravdis)

As Woska’s workshop came to an end, the hosts gave their final remarks to the live stream and the cameras were turned off about three hours prior to landing. The unique and fascinating subjects within the FlyingLab had made the 11-hour flight pass extremely fast and by the end of it, we were already over 70 percent of the way to Los Angeles.

An Experience Like None Other

After all of the equipment was stowed away, the hard-working crew of the FlyingLab finally had a moment to relax and enjoy a toast to the fantastic production they had just put on. With just under 30 minutes left in-flight, the seatbelt sign was turned on and we touched down in Los Angeles at 3:15 p.m., successfully concluding Lufthansa’s latest FlyingLab.

The enthusiasm among speakers, invited guests and passengers for the event could be felt from the moment we arrived at the gate in Munich to deplaning in Los Angeles. The amount of effort and work it takes to create a live conference at 35,000 feet is beyond comprehensible and the Lufthansa team has time and time again pushed creative limits with their FlyingLab productions.

Two hosts conduct a live “fireside” chat while photographers get the perfect shot of the live stream and members of the production team move equipment for the next shot. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Mateen Kontoravdis)

There is currently no other airline hosting anything similar to Lufthansa, which makes FlyingLab flights one of a kind. Despite only being founded three years ago, the FlyingLab has become an incubator for creators to innovate and collaborate to better the future of travel.

The carrier is taking it a step forward, introducing FlyingLab 2.0 where the focus will be more on continuing innovation and how the company can further innovate and build new products for Lufthansa carriers according to Liebe. The first FlyingLab for 2020 has been scheduled for March 12, when Lufthansa operates its annual SXSW pre-conference shuttle.

Mateen Kontoravdis
Mateen Kontoravdis
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