Flying Colors

How they pick the paint scheme in your airplane, and other tricks of passenger cabin design.

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Blue skies: The choice of colors in your airliner is no accident.

When flight attendants invite newly boarded passengers to “sit back and relax,” in most cases that process has already begun. The legroom might be less than ideal, but subtle interior design clues have already started providing the passenger’ s subconscious with some much-needed TLC.

While aviation enthusiasts are typically drawn to an airplane’s size, speed and exterior design, the passenger experience is often more influenced by subtle effects of color, shape, texture, and light. It’s the handiwork not of engineers, but psychologists. “We design the interior to calm passengers, make them feel safe and also get them excited about flying,” said Rachelle Ornan, Director of Cabin Experience for Boeing commercial airplanes.

Once boarded, passengers will most often settle into a sea of blue leather seats on a shallow blue carpet running the length of the airplane. Matching blue accessories will be featured on the tray tables, light fixtures, and armrests. The choice of color is not accidental. “Blue is calming, and it's also used all over the place, especially in Western society, to convey solidity, trust and strength,” said Ornan, who has been designing cabins at Boeing for 14 years. For the same reasons, blue scrubs are worn by hospital staff to calm patients, lower blood pressure, and ease anxiety.

Once airborne, the cabin colors also complement the scenery outside the window. “Blue reminds passengers of the sky. It's used in the ceiling to connect passengers to the magic and feeling of flying,” said Ornan, who noted that the Western affinity for blue does not necessarily apply to all cultures. “The Chinese, in particular, love red, and you'll see Asian airlines employ this color often.”

Cabin interior design isn’t just about looks. Overhead bins, seats and ceilings that sport curved lines, as opposed to squared edges, provide a safer environment in turbulent air. They also have a perhaps unexpected, though well-documented, effect on passenger psyche. “Curved designs tend to be associated with femininity, where sharp edges tend to be considered more masculine,” said Christina Frederick, a human factors professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Ornan seconded this notion. Unlike the feminine lines used in luxury car design, which aim to invoke sex appeal, airline interiors sport curved designs for their more maternal vibe. “Feminine lines are used for airplane interiors because it makes people feel safe in the 'womb-like' environment,” said Ornan.

Airplane designers have other tricks for tapping into the passenger subconscious. “Textures play a role in how light is diffused,” said Frederick. “They really contribute to the whole sensory experience a person has.” A completely smooth cabin would offer the same level of visual stimulation as a whiteout... next to none. But textured surfaces, especially patterned ones, tend to highlight dirt on the surface. Designers try to find a balance between soothing and stimulating.

Most often, airlines will stick with natural color schemes, imitating what would be seen during sunrise, mid-day and sunset. This works with a passenger’s circadian rhythm to reduce jet lag experienced after an overseas flight. Ornan, who helped transfer the trademarked lighting from Boeing’s commercial airplanes into the company’s Starliner spacecraft, said that custom lighting schemes have to pass a round of testing in light labs before being implemented. Uniform fabrics, skin tones, and even menu items are tested in the custom lighting schemes to ensure that certain shades won't distort their appearance, or have passengers reaching for the airsickness bags--yet another way airplane designers try to ease your subconscious into vacation mode.

A recent graduate of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University with a B.S in Spaceflight Operations, Katie is an aerospace enthusiast who enjoys writing about everything that touches the clouds.

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