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Daniel Knies – Design is in the air

The criticism of flying is getting louder and louder. At the same time, the number of air travellers continues to grow. What contribution can design make here? We talk with Daniel Knies from SPIRIANT, one of the most experienced managers for in-flight service design, about new concepts for the future.

Portrait of Daniel Knies
Daniel Knies

How many people do you think come into contact with your design each year?

We estimate 700 million passengers, flight attendants and airport staff.

The number of passengers flying is expected to double by 2030 - what service design strategies are you using to ensure that every passenger feels personally addressed despite this logistical challenge?

We develop in-flight service products, from tableware to crew service items, from care products to blankets and pillows. Even young passengers are not neglected.

Our products support an increasingly individualised service where each guest can put together his or her own personalised package. To this end, we are developing ever more flexible product and service concepts that give passengers and crew members more options to choose from and that can be logistically implemented in the limited space available on board. A passenger in Economy Class, for example, can enhance their flight and book a Business Class meal for a fee. Such offers are becoming more and more part of the airlines' portfolio.

How do you manage to create exactly the right experience, during the flight, for people with different cultural backgrounds?

Airlines do this primarily through country-specific offers such as meals. We try to design products that can be understood and comfortably used by as many people as possible, i.e. products that do not require any instructions, because they are based on cultural habits or because visual instructions on the product make them easy and safe to use by as many age groups as possible. Experienced frequent flyers are still a minority.

two trays with dishes and chopsticks
Comforter cover with pattern

How can you tell if an airline is making an effort with in-flight concepts?

If they have a clear service philosophy - that is based on brand values and is aligned with the corporate design. Lufthansa, for example, puts particular emphasis on ensuring that its products are well thought through - one of the brand values - and that they are designed to be consistent and highly recognisable.

Can you give examples of service strategies currently pursued by different airlines?

There are different trends globally. In Europe and the Middle East there is certainly a big trend in terms of more buy-on-board offers and additionally bookable upgrades. Other airlines want to upgrade their service by simplifying the offer, but at the same time want to upgrade it by offering meals that have restaurant quality. Others want to expand their services on the ground and are increasingly looking for partnerships with well-known brands that already offer high-quality products and services and have the credibility to do so.

Display with drinks and snacks

Your design is probably completely embedded in the concepts of the airline you work for - how much freedom do you still have as a designer?

We have some freedom. Of course, we try to design products that fit the respective airline and make them distinctive. But our customers also expect us to suggest new ideas and solutions. We know, that due to the limiting framework conditions, these can be limited in the course of implementation. So we are developing a range of new products that keep beverages and food fresh and at a suitable temperature for longer. To achieve this, we are always on the hunt for the latest materials and manufacturing processes. We also take a close look at consumer needs and observe, for example, what is happening in the retail market and what long-term trends are emerging.

Consumers are, rightfully so, becoming increasingly critical and demand holistic and sustainable solutions.

Will food on board still play a role in the future?

For sure. Food is indulgence and especially on long flights essential. However, the concepts on board will increasingly complement the offers on the ground. Guests will be able to book upgrades via apps and take advantage of the additional lounges and partner restaurants at the airport.

Which global trends will influence your design in the years to come?

The demand for sustainable, environmentally friendly products and concepts will become a crucial topic. Global regulations such as the EU directive on the reduction of plastic waste pose major challenges for our industry. However, the desire for more and more individualised services and support also increases complexity and requires new logistical concepts for provision.

Solution for waste disposal

How do you deal with the climate change and packaging prevention issues today and in the future? And where are the most exciting innovations taking place in your sector right now?

We are actively addressing this issue and see it as our responsibility to reduce the impact on our environment. Therefore, we look at every article and try to find the right balance between the use of material and durability. We are also working intensively on recycling concepts and the use of renewable materials. This is certainly the most exciting topic for the years to come. Consumers are becoming increasingly critical, and rightly so, are demanding holistic and sustainable solutions.

What do you personally like about your job?

The diversity offered by the wide range of products made of different materials and of course the global context, our customers come from all corners of the world. This is something very special - always trying to get involved in new cultural contexts and trying to understand them and to integrate them into our own work.


If you had your own airline - what would you focus on when designing your service?

I would offer a concept without flight classes. Instead, everyone can book their own individual trip from a range of services - for example, lounge access, more seating space or no meals on board because they would rather sleep. In the end, you only pay for what you actually use.