Grab’s Promotion Problems

(updated to include Grab’s response, edits)

Grab, Uber’s rival in Southeast Asia, is putting up an impressive fight against the ridesharing company. Both have deep pockets, and offer incentives to both drivers and riders.

But Grab is either struggling to phrase its promos correctly or something more sinister afoot. Today riders were in uproar when they found that a promotion that offered “$4 off 20 Grab rides next week” turned out to mean, well, not exactly that.

Those complaining that the $4 deal was cut short well before they’d used 20 rides were told that “the Terms and condition stated that the promo [has] limited .. redemptions available”. One Grab employee posted on Facebook that “We have taken your feedback and we will make it more obvious and clearer in our future communications. Stay tuned to our future promotions and happy Grabbing!”

Happy Grabbing indeed. I’ve looked at the terms and conditions and it does indeed say, at the bottom of the promo that ‘limited redemptions available’. But not all of them: see this one on my app below:

 

It’s hard to imagine, though, that this would be at the expense of the clear offer to “enjoy $4 off 20 Grab rides next week” — without any asterisk or weasel wording, at least close to the title.

I’ve reached out to Grab and they offered this:

I do want to assure you that our promos are genuine. There are terms and conditions and in this case, we had shared that the promo was for up to 20 rides, until the promo was fully redeemed (referencing the line on limited redemptions).

I’d like to be open with you on what happened. We could have been clearer on our communications. We had transparently highlighted it was limited redemptions in our eDMs and in-app notification of the promo, however in our notification when passengers had successfully redeemed the ‘4off’, it mentioned it was up to 20 rides without the additional line on limited redemptions. This was an oversight and I apologise for that. 

We’ve unfortunately disappointed some people this time around, and we have to put our hand up that we made a mistake in not repeating that there were limited redemptions. This oversight should not have happened.

I know there are questions asked about whether we had shared that there were limited redemptions – we did make sure to highlight this when we shared this promo. You’ll also see it in the notifications panel in the Grab app.

It’s not the first time I’ve wrestled with Grab’s promotion schemes. While they’re attractive, they clearly cannot be permanent, and at best I find them awkwardly implemented; at worst I find them deliberately awkwardly implemented, designed to fool the rider into believing they’ve been offered something only to find it’s something else. In the words of one Grab rider on Facebook: bait and switch.

Grab assure me that’s not the case, but I’m sure I’m not the only chump who topped up his GrabPay wallet thinking he would be enjoying a week of cheap rides. More fool me.

Going Soft On Robots

Snake on a plane! Don’t panic, it’s probably just a (soft) robot

My piece on soft material robots for Reuters. Original story here: I’ve added links in this piece.

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Robots are getting softer.

Borrowing from nature, some machines now have arms that curl and grip like an octopus, others wriggle their way inside an airplane engine or forage underwater to create their own energy.

This is technology that challenges how we think of, and interact with, the robots of the not-too-distant future.

Robots are big business: by 2020, the industry will have more than doubled to $188 billion, predicts IDC, a consultancy. But there’s still a lot that today’s models can’t do, partly because they are mostly made of rigid metal or plastic.

Softer, lighter and less reliant on external power, future robots could interact more safely and predictably with humans, go where humans can’t, and do some of the robotic jobs that other robots still can’t manage.

A recent academic conference in Singapore showcased the latest advances in soft robotics, highlighting how far they are moving away from what we see as traditional robots.

“The theme here,” says Nikolaus Correll of Colorado University, “is a departure from gears, joints and links.”

One robot on display was made of origami paper; another resembled a rolling colostomy bag. They are more likely to move via muscles that expand and contract through heat or hydraulics than by electricity. Some combine sensing and movement into the same component – just as our fingertips react to touch without needing our brain to make a decision.

These ideas are already escaping from the lab.

SMALL, AGILE

Rolls-Royce, for example, is testing a snake-like robot that can worm its way inside an aircraft engine mounted on the wing, saving the days it can take to remove the engine, inspect it and put it back.

Of all the technologies Rolls-Royce is exploring to solve this bottleneck, “this is the killer one,” says Oliver Walker-Jones, head of communications.

The snake, says its creator, Arnau Garriga Casanovas, is made largely of pressurized silicone chambers, allowing the controller to propel and bend it through the engine with bursts of air. Using soft materials, he says, means it can be small and agile.

For now, much of the commercial action for softer robots is in logistics, replacing production-line jobs that can’t yet be handled by hard robots.

Food preparation companies and growers like Blue Apron, Plated and HelloFresh already use soft robotics for handling produce, says Mike Rocky, of recruiter PrincetonOne.

“This is an area robots traditionally can’t do, but where (soft robots) are on the cusp of being able to,” said Nathan Wrench of Cambridge Consultants.

MARINE INSPIRATION

Investors are excited, says Leif Jentoft, co-founder of RightHand Robotics, because it addresses a major pain point in the logistics industry. “Ecommerce is growing rapidly and warehouses are struggling to find enough labor, especially in remote areas where warehouses tend to be located.”

Some hope to ditch the idea that robots need hands. German automation company Festo and China’s Beihang University have built a prototype OctopusGripper, which has a pneumatic tentacle made of silicone that gently wraps itself around an object, while air is pumped in or out of suction cups to grasp it.

OctopusGripper (photo: festo.com)

A soft robot fish from China’s Zhejiang University swims by ditching the usual rigid motors and propellers for an artificial muscle which flexes. It’s lifelike enough, says creator Tiefeng Li, to fool other fish into embracing it as one of their own, and is being tested to explore or monitor water salinity.

And Bristol University in the UK is working on underwater robots that generate electrical energy by foraging for biomatter to feed a chain of microbial fuel-cell stomachs. Hemma Philamore says her team is talking to companies and environmental organizations about using its soft robots to decontaminate polluted waterways and monitor industrial infrastructure.

This doesn’t mean the end of hard-shelled robots.

Part of the problem, says Mark Freudenberg, executive technology director at frog, a design company, is that soft materials break easily, noting that most animatronic dolls like Teddy Ruxpin and Furby have rigid motors and plastic casings beneath their fur exteriors.

To be sure, the nascent soft robot industry lacks an ecosystem of software, hardware components and standards – and some companies have already failed. Empire Robotics, one of the first soft robot gripper companies, closed last year.

RightHand’s Jentoft says the problem is that customers don’t just want a robot, but the whole package, including computer vision and machine learning. “It’s hard to be a standalone gripper company,” he says.

And even if soft robots find a niche, chances are they still won’t replace all the jobs done by human or hard-shelled robots.

Wrench, whose Cambridge Consultants has built its own fruit picking robot, says he expects to see soft robots working with humans to harvest fruit like apples and pears which are harder to damage.

Once the robot has passed through, human pickers would follow to grab fruit hidden behind leaves and in hard-to-reach spots.

“It’s a constant race to the bottom, so there’s a pressing business need,” Wrench said.

Reporting by Jeremy Wagstaff; Editing by Ian Geoghegan

Narrowband Goes Broad

Seems LoRa is really taking off. Citing data from research firm Analysys Mason, Chris Donkin writes that 85 new networks were announced as live, in a trial phase or in development in 2016 compared with 29 in 2015.

While early LPWA deployments were concentrated in the US and Western Europe, Analysys Mason found interest in the technology spread during 2016, with strong traction being seen in the APAC market.

During 2015, two thirds of initiatives took place in the US and Western Europe whereas in 2016 the figure was down to less than a third. Simultaneously APAC showed growth from 4 per cent in 2015 to 30 per cent in 2016.

The report identified developments in Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand as being especially significant in the regional shift identified last year.
– via Mobile World Live

While a lot of these led by SigFox or operators using the NB-IoT standard — a stripped down 3G, more interesting, I think is the LoRa version, which actually provided the single largest group — 29 deployments vs 27 Sigfox.

The LoRa Alliance says 17 nationwide deployments have been publicly announced, and there are live networks in more than 150 cities. So I’m guessing AM’s numbers are somewhat conservative. The Things Network, an open source implementation of LoRa, boasts dozens of communities — people who are working on networks, however small — and while most are in Europe and the US, Australia is strong — Sydney’s Meshed Network Pty has installed five gateways around the city.

The author of the AM piece, Aris Xylouris, says “we can expect more announcements to be made before Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2017. It is likely that the launch of the first real commercial deployment of an NB-IoT network will be among the announcements at MWC 2017.”

Here’s my take from August on narrowband.

2017 Predictions

This piece was written for the BBC World Service’s Business Daily.

This year is going to be an interesting one, but in technology it’s going to be particularly so. Social media is going to see some reverses, as users start to wake up to the compromises they make in sharing information with companies, governments and the world. But the real progress is going to be making our machines understand us better, in ways that we want.

Artificial intelligence: you’re no doubt rolling your eyes at the phrase, given how many times this technology has been promised as being around the next corner. I’m with you. But I think the focus has been on the wrong place: voice. Apple’s Siri has not been a huge success — except for my daughter, who loves talking to an adult she can be rude to — and Amazon’s Alexa, though impressive, is going to confine itself to those places where we feel comfortable talking to machines: the home.

That makes it inherently limited. Ours is actually a largely text-based world — we still use email, we prefer to text, or Whatsapp our friends, and this is where AI is going to be most useful. I already use an AI assistant called Evie to schedule my appointments; she parses emails I send her and, with a little human help, sets up meetings and calls on my behalf. I save an hour or so a week.

Expect to see more of this: using natural language – the way we usually write — to interact with devices, not via special apps but via whatever channels we already use. It’s our devices — fridges, computers, databases — that have to learn our language and preferred medium, not the other way around. AI will be a success if it can master this, and this year will be key.

Indeed, the same principle will be applied elsewhere: removing the machine-like elements of our interactions. AI will help us talk to machines better, but machines will also help immerse us in experiences. Pokemon Go, the mobile app that led many people astray catching and battling weird critters, was a hit because it took a decade-old technology, augmented reality, and bolted it onto something that people actually found useful. Well, not useful, exactly, but compelling.

Augmented reality took technology into the real world, and gave it an enticing layer. The next step — using technology to shrink the distance between people and the real world. Optimists are calling it teleportation — moving you to places you wouldn’t normally go, or can’t go. That could be a 360 degree video from a live event, or drones filming from way above you, or even experiencing something akin to physical touch with someone whose far away from you. A Singapore startup offers a remote kissing machine, which it of course has called the Kissenger.

Industry is getting excited about this because it sees the possibility of creating a digital twin of a real world device — a turbine say — and then manage and experiment on that digital version of the real thing. A Malaysian company does something similar with corpses — scanning the deceased so that post-mortems can be conducted digitally. The original body is left untouched — which may please relatives, but also means the number of post-mortems can be limitless, and performed by someone on the other side of the world.

All of this technology is available now, but it still takes some vision and money to bring it to market. But what people want is clear enough: technology should bring people closer to each other and their machines, but stay out of the way as much as possible. We may not successfully wean ourselves off our mobile screens any time soon, but we could at least make what we see, hear, and do on those screens as useful, exciting and human as possible.

PCs with Wireless Charging?

PCWorld reports of a Dell laptop with wireless charging, but it seems a low-key affair without much conviction:

At CES last week, Dell showed a wireless charging PC called the Latitude 7285, a 2-in-1 with a detachable screen attached to a keyboard base. It’s the first wireless charging laptop based on the AirFuel Alliance’s emerging wireless PC charging standard.

But Dell doesn’t have widespread plans to put wireless charging in a host of new devices. That’s partly because the technology, with slow charging speeds, is limited to low-power devices and isn’t mature enough to replace wired charging. The wireless charging Latitude 7285 has a low-power Intel Kaby Lake chip that draws just 4.5 watts of power.
– via PCWorld

You can see the problem. The whole point of wireless charging is that it works for smaller devices that you want to charge without having to fiddle with cables. It’s also a location thing: if you’re at your desk you’ve probably got a cable. But if you’re at your bedside, and want to charge your Kindle or phone overnight, just being able to put it on the nightstand and know it’s charging is elegant and appropriate.

So part of the problem here is companies foisting a ‘solution’ on a problem that doesn’t exist. The other is the continuing failure to agree on standards that work across all devices. Until that happens, don’t expect this to be a thing. As PC World says:

It hasn’t been smooth sailing for wireless PC charging. Intel had earlier taken the lead on establishing the wireless PC charging ecosystem. But the company scaled back efforts after laying off 12,000 people last year and restructuring operations to focus more on servers, internet of things, automotive tech, and other areas.

Intel was also leading an effort by AirFuel Alliance to establish the Resonant standard for wireless PC charging. AirFuel last November reconstituted a PC Task Force to drive adoption of wireless charging in PCs, with partners including Dell, Lenovo, and STMicroelectronics.

Intel also took on the job of trying to convince airports, cafes, and other locations to install wireless charging stands for laptops. But the efforts have not yet shown any tangible results.

Dog fight: Start-ups take aim at errant drones

Here’s a piece I wrote with Reuters colleague Swati Pandey about the rise of anti-drone technologies. Buckle up.

A boom in consumer drone sales has spawned a counter-industry of start-ups aiming to stop drones flying where they shouldn’t, by disabling them or knocking them out of the sky.

Dozens of start-up firms are developing techniques – from deploying birds of prey to firing gas through a bazooka – to take on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that are being used to smuggle drugs, drop bombs, spy on enemy lines or buzz public spaces.

The arms race is fed in part by the slow pace of government regulation for drones.

In Australia, for example, different agencies regulate drones and counter-drone technologies. “There are potential privacy issues in operating remotely piloted aircraft, but the Civil Aviation Safety Authority’s role is restricted to safety. Privacy is not in our remit,” the CASA told Reuters.

“There’s a bit of a fear factor here,” says Kyle Landry, an analyst at Lux Research. “The high volume of drones, plus regulations that can’t quite keep pace, equals a need for personal counter-drone technology.”

The consumer drone market is expected to be worth $5 billion by 2021, according to market researcher Tractica, with the average drone in the United States costing more than $500 and packing a range of features from high-definition cameras to built-in GPS, predicts NPD Group, a consultancy.

Australian authorities relaxed drone regulations in September, allowing anyone to fly drones weighing up to 2kg without training, insurance, registration or certification.

Elsewhere, millions of consumers can fly high-end devices – and so can drug traffickers, criminal gangs and insurgents.

Drones have been used to smuggle mobile phones, drugs and weapons into prisons, in one case triggering a riot. One U.S. prison governor has converted a bookshelf into an impromptu display of drones his officers have confiscated.

Armed groups in Iraq, Ukraine, Syria and Turkey are increasingly using off-the-shelf drones for reconnaissance or as improvised explosive devices, says Nic Jenzen-Jones, director of Armament Research Services, a consultancy on weapons.

A booby-trapped drone launched by Islamic State militants killed two Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and wounded two French soldiers in October near Mosul.

The use of drones by such groups is likely to spread, says Jenzen-Jones. “There’s an understanding that the threat can migrate beyond existing conflict zones,” he told Reuters.

ANTI-DRONES

This is feeding demand for increasingly advanced technology to bring down or disable unwanted drones.

At one end of the scale, the Dutch national police recently bought several birds of prey from a start-up called Guard From Above to pluck unwanted drones from the sky, its CEO and founder Sjoerd Hoogendoorn said in an email.

Other approaches focus on netting drones, either via bigger drones or by guns firing a net and a parachute via compressed gas.

Some, like Germany’s DeDrone, take a less intrusive approach by using a combination of sensors – camera, acoustic, Wi-Fi signal detectors and radio frequency (RF) scanners – to passively monitor drones within designated areas.

Newer start-ups, however, are focusing on cracking the radio wireless protocols used to control a drone’s direction and payload to then take it over and block its video transmission.

Singapore’s TeleRadio Engineering uses RF signals in its SkyDroner device to track and control drones and a video feed to confirm targets visually.

DroneVision Inc of Taiwan, meanwhile, says it is the first to anticipate the frequency hopping many drones use. Founder Kason Shih says his anti-drone gun – resembling a rifle with two oversized barrels, coupled with a backpack – blocks the drone’s GPS signals and video transmission, forcing it back to where it took off via the drone’s own failsafe features.

VARIED CLIENTELE

Clients, the start-up companies say, range from intelligence agencies to hotels. DroneVision, for example, helped local police down 40 drones flying around Taipei 101, one of the world’s tallest buildings and a magnet for drone users, in a single day.

In the Middle East, upscale hotels are talking to at least two companies about blocking drones from taking shots of their celebrity guests longing poolside or in the privacy of their bathrooms.

And even while the military, Jenzen-Jones says, may have the capability to bring down drones, demand is shifting to nimbler, more agile devices to cope with attacks using smaller off-the-shelf devices. “The key is looking for systems that are scalable, lightweight and easily deployable,” he said.

HEY, REGULATORS

The problem, such companies say, is that regulations on the use of drones – and about countering them – are still in their infancy. In countries like the United States and Australia, for example, drones are considered private property, and they can only be jammed by government agencies.

“Mitigation capabilities,” says Jonathan Hunter, CEO of Department 13, “are therefore limited.”

Oleg Vornik, chief financial officer of DroneShield, however, says: “This is expected to change shortly as governments start to recognise that critical infrastructure facilities such as airports need to be able to defend themselves against drones.”

In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration is testing various counter-drone technologies at several airports.

Interest in the space will only grow.

London will next year host the world’s first two conferences on counter-drone technologies, says Jenzen-Jones. But there will also likely be consolidation.

DroneShield’s Vornik says the company has counted 100 counter-drone start-ups, and is talking to more than a dozen of them as potential acquisition targets.

It’s too early, Vornik says, to see evidence of moves to get around anti-drone technology. But Amazon.com last month tested deliveries in the UK via drones, and published a patent describing how it might defend drones from threats, ranging from a bow and arrow to signal jammers.

Why we hate video calls

Good piece in the New Scientist about why we’ve always hated video calls:

When another New York Times reporter went to Pittsburgh in mid-1971, however, he found only 33 Picturephones in operation, with just 12 able to dial outside their own buildings. Aside from impracticalities such as cost, it seemed that, against all predictions, no one actually wanted video calling. Users were more interested in seeing graphics than face-to-face video conversation. At Bell Labs, Lucky recalls that the only person who called his Picturephone was his boss, Arno Penzias. “I found it very awkward because I had to stare at him,” he says.

More than that, I think the enduring non-appeal of video is that it doesn’t start to replace talking face to face. Face to face talking is not about seeing the other person, or looking them in the eyes — it’s about non-verbal communication — gestures, body language, touching, etc. It’s also about allowing other things to intervene — movement, distraction, interaction with objects.

Video calls are exhausting, because you are trying to replace all that with just maintaining eye contact, or at least giving the appearance of remaining engaged. It’s a new form of communication, and we’ve tried and rejected it. Whenever Cisco drag me over to their HQ for some elaborate video conference I always feel it’s a waste of time, and a major overengineering of a flawed medium.

Talking on the phone, meanwhile, suits us perfectly (although I’ve come to hate it almost as much as video calling.) As George Costanza once said, after going through a phone conversation with a blind date:

George: She had to be impressed by that conversation, had to! It was a great performance. I am unbelievable on the phone. On the date they should just have two phones on the table at the restaurant, done.

Phone calls have become useful because we are able to transfer a lot of the body language and non-verbal cues into speech (and silence). We’re still working on text chat, but we’re getting there. It works — it’s not exhausting. It’s communicating what we want to communicate, and filtering out what we don’t — and not reading, at least for the most part, anything into anything else.

Evernote Makes Employee Reading of Messages Opt-in

Evernote has been through the wringer with its decision to add machine learning to its repertoire, effectively trying to pave the way to added services based on scanning the contents of users’ notes. Users were not happy, not least because Evernote made it opt-out. The settings looked like this: 

Screenshot 2016 12 15 06 23 04

Evernote has now had a change of heart, rather coyly calling it Evernote Revisits Privacy Policy Change in Response to Feedback: No longer would it implement the planned Privacy Policy changes for January 23.

“Instead, in the coming months we will be revising our existing Privacy Policy to address our customers’ concerns, reinforce that their data remains private by default, and confirm the trust they have placed in Evernote is well founded. In addition, we will make machine learning technologies available to our users, but no employees will be reading note content as part of this process unless users opt in. We will invite Evernote customers to help us build a better product by joining the program.”

It’s probably the best solution in the circumstances, but it was poorly handled, and reflected a lack of understanding, once again, of what the product is. Evernote is simply that: a place where you can store your notes forever. That needs to be paramount. Anything else needs to support that, and not undermine it. 

Users’ reaction was becaues they prized privacy and security above other layers of features and services that may arise from running semantic engines and whatnot over Evernote. And certainly doing it via opt-out, and a privacy policy that raised suspicions.

I personally would love to see more done with my notes — complex search is still poor, finding similar notes is still poor — but I need, and I’m sure I’m not alone — to be confident Evernote isn’t going to do anything weird with my stash without my permission. Especially have employees poring over them. 

Turn off location in iOS, and Uber doesn’t work

(Update: Uber say they are looking into it.) 

Buzzfeed says Privacy Advocates Want Uber To Stop Tracking Users After Rides End but Uber responds that “by offering the option of manually entering pick-up locations, the company is giving users a choice to be tracked or not.”

It quotes Kurt Opsahl, deputy executive director and general counsel at EFF, as saying that this ‘takes away a lot of the usability.’ Part of Uber’s appeal is how easy it is to open the app and let GPS pinpoint your location for a driver. ‘As you’re trying to get picked up by the side of the road, you might not know what address you’re at,’ Opsahl said. ‘I guess you could turn it on and off again…but that’s pretty clunky as well.’”

I’d agree, and have found in my tests that it’s worse than that: turn location off, and the app no longer works. 

First off, here are the options, as described in settings in iOS:

2016 12 06 18 10 15

So it’s either Always or Never. Nothing in between. Turn to Never and things not only get clunky — meaning that you’re prompted by dire warnings every few minutes, but after a day or two you start to get blank screens, like these when you try to book an Uber. 

2016 12 06 18 09 38

2016 12 06 17 10 20

I’ve reached out to Uber for an explanation. 

Lighten up: tech firms take on economy-class flight challenge

A piece I wrote for Reuters on travel startups:

Lighten up: tech firms take on economy-class flight challenge

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Some start-ups are taking on one of air travel’s last undisrupted bastions – the economy-class cabin. While first and business class travelers have long enjoyed comfort upgrades, there’s been less attention to innovation at the rear of the plane.

“We want to make travel memorable and comfortable for all of us, not just the top 1 percent,” Alireza Yaghoubi, founder of Singapore-based AirGo, told a recent start-up conference to pitch his superlight economy-class seat.

He’s not alone. Half a dozen firms are pitching something similar, wanting to make seats more comfortable, improve cabin lighting, make it easier to use and charge mobile devices on flights, and even upgrade the humble food trolley.

They are trying to penetrate an industry eyeing significant growth on the back of strong jetliner demand, illustrated by this week’s $6.4 billion deal for Rockwell Collins to take over B/E Aerospace, an interiors manufacturer.

Persuading the airline industry to upgrade, however, is a tough ask. In a fiercely competitive market and with single-digit margins, carriers have gone as far as they can with economy-class innovation, says Anthony Harcup of Acumen, a UK design house that works with planemakers and airlines.

“Right now, we’ve designed ourselves into a corner with the current economy format,” he says. “It’s about as tight and tiny as you’re going to get it. So something has to give, and it’s difficult to see what that is.”

Acumen, which designed the world’s first flat bed for British Airways 20 years ago, has had only two of its in-cabin concepts lie unused: both involved re-thinking the form and layout of economy-class seats.

But that’s not stopping a new generation of outsiders working with new materials and technologies to make economy class, if not luxurious, at least more bearable.

FLAX SEED TROLLEY

AirGo’s Yaghoubi, for example, vowed to do something about airline seats when he flew back to his native Iran on its national airline and noticed the seats hadn’t been replaced since the plane was bought 40 years ago. “Actually, they were quite a lot more comfortable” than today’s seats, he said.

The latest prototype of his seats, he says, offers a wider back rest by having smaller elbow rests that fold down rather than up, and has better head support. Extra leg room is created by moving the literature pocket and improving the seat posture to have people sit more upright.

But these firms realize they can’t just pitch their seats on comfort alone.

UK-based Rebel.Aero, for example, promises to speed up boarding and integrate a child seat by letting the seat slide upwards, like an inverted cinema seat. This frees up space for passengers to move in and out and stretch their legs. Founder Gareth Burks says he’s halfway through getting certification and has delivered sample seats to some aircraft manufacturers.

AirGo is counting on airlines liking that its seats are made of carbon fiber composites, where fibers are braided like hair, creating a hollow structure that halves their weight.

Others are experimenting with other materials. France-based Expliseat has announced Air Tahiti as the first customer for its titanium seats, freeing up the equivalent weight of up to four passengers.

And UK-based FlightWeight has redesigned the food trolley, ditching the usual aluminum casing for mostly flax seed waste, volcanic rock, sugar and water – making it almost a third lighter.

OBSTACLES, GRUMBLES

Changing consumer habits also offer airlines a chance to shed weight.

Most passengers would prefer to use their own mobile device, says Fred Cleveland, former vice president at American Airlines and now an adviser to PricewaterhouseCoopers. This allows some airlines to ditch some expensive and heavy wiring and hardware, and convert seats into charging stations.

Cobalt Aerospace, another UK-based design firm, offers ways to customize seats, including wireless charging in tray tables and arm rests.

This could be bad news for suppliers of in-flight entertainment systems such as Thales and Panasonic. Singapore Airlines’ budget subsidiary Scoot has already abandoned traditional seat-back consoles in favor of pre-loaded iPads.

But there are obstacles for start-ups.

A lot has already been spent by companies such as Germany’s Recaro and France’s Zodiac Aerospace on making seats as light as possible by using advanced materials. Many leading airlines are already installing them.

But production bottlenecks in the interiors industry highlight the challenges it faces in keeping up with demand, and may make airlines wary of gambling on untested suppliers.

Persuading airlines to spend more isn’t easy, says Martin Darbyshire of UK-based Tangerine, which customized the head rests in Cathay Pacific’s A350 economy seats. Cathay was willing to make the changes, he said, because it makes money from economy. “But for most other airlines the costs are prohibitive.”

Maybe the biggest hurdle is certification.

There are strict rules about what can and can’t be done, and any tweaks require approval. When one airframe maker reduced the weight of the tracks where seats slot in, it found itself having to restore all the saved weight to ensure the design met certification requirements, said Darbyshire. “It becomes a vicious circle.”

Part of the problem is that while passengers grumble about economy-class travel, they are sensitive to price and don’t differentiate much on features, says Acumen’s Harcup.

Unlike booking a hotel, he says, where cost is just one of many metrics a customer looks at – internet access, parking, a pool – when it comes to the airline seat “the passenger is confronted with one metric and that’s cost. So it’s no wonder we’re in the situation we’re in.”

Reporting by Jeremy Wagstaff, with additional reporting by Tim Hepher; Editing by Ian Geoghegan