In 2014, passengers are more rattled when they enter the cabin than they were at the turn of the century. They’ve just passed through an hour or two of extra security measures. They’ve been scanned, prodded and told to remove their shoes. They’ve paid extra for a couple of pounds of oversized luggage. And in a post-Sept. 11 world — however irrational the fear when compared to safety statistics — their palms are likely to be sweating just a little bit more when they leave the ground. 

Airline brands know this and have been working to streamline and tailor the experience of flying in the 21st century into as painless and anxiety-free an endeavor as possible. Among topnotch airlines, and regional competitors expanding into larger markets, there’s a race to provide as many creature comforts as possible: After all, the cushiest, safest, cheapest ride wins out in the end.

Companies have been developing — or partnering to provide — a variety of highly functional in-flight collateral for their customers. A fair number of these efforts have focused on revamping mealtime; as a result, on many airlines, the choice between two or three microwaved and poorly-packaged dishes is a thing of the past.

For instance, in April of last year, airBaltic began to allow customers to tailor their onboard meal at the time of booking.1 Choosing from a range of local Latvian produce and other high-quality, outside-the-box couture, diners over the Balkans enjoy three courses that rival most regional restaurants’ menus. Similarly, Hawaiian Airlines recently partnered with island produce outlets to bring its passengers a taste of what to expect when they land, including offerings from the local Kona Chips company, the Punalu’u Bakeshop and the Kauai Kookie company.2 Not to be outdone, British Airways also saw a unique opportunity for innovation — in a teapot. In February of 2013, the airline launched a partnership with Twinings, the famous British purveyor of tea, to bring customers a blend developed specifically for high-altitude brewing and consumption.3

What about the presentation? Airlines have been just as busy developing branded dinnerware. Lufthansa was recently awarded for the company’s unique meal trays, crafted to resemble city skylines from a number of the airline’s destinations.4 The inventive, playful aesthetic design was complemented by the tray’s high functionality, developed to weather the often rough treatment that accompanies catering at 30,000 feet. Similarly, Finnair is still reaping the benefits of its partnership with the Finnish design house Marimekko, which the airline brought in to re-imagine its tableware and fabric amenities.5 The iconic designer took the airline’s overly minimal prints and porcelain and adorned them with traditional Finnish flowers for a bright, elegant, relaxed feel.

This latter example blurs the line we often create between functionality and aesthetic appeal, since the ability to relax on an airplane is largely the measure of the airline’s success: its ability to optimally perform a core function (along with landing, safely, of course) for its customers. This blurred line — or the functionality of aesthetics — is an instrumental component to consider in designing any packaging, for any industry. Every shape, pattern, color and texture choice cannot be made in the vacuum of its appeal to the designer, the designing agency and the executives reviewing it, but rather the choice must be made and judged in the context of its specific, necessary impact on the end consumer. Pardon the pun, but pretty for pretty’s sake, sleek for sleek’s sake — these don’t fly in packaging.

It’s common for startups to enter our office at Imagemme with a clearly imagined brand identity for their new product or service, a vision they’ve been honing sometimes for years. Just as commonly, that brand identity isn’t the best avenue to create brand recognition and drive sales. Usually, this is because their vision has been understandably limited to personal aesthetic preferences, without placing their visualizations in the context of existing competitive brands, market trends, manufacturability or future expansions. The best thing a startup can ask itself when beginning the brand identity phase, whether by themselves or in collaboration with an agency, is: Why? Why do we want it to be ornate, or minimalist? Why do we want hard angles; why flowing lines? If the startup brand doesn’t have precise, well-wrought answers for questions such as these, it should take a step back and reconsider its choices, specifically in the context of the aforementioned market factors.

But back to airlines: The efforts to repackage on-board meals have been accompanied by a slew of other initiatives that fliers encounter at the most anxiety-inducing moment of a flight — takeoff. All airlines are required by law to feature safety information, which has traditionally taken the form of bland instructional videos or monotonous addresses from the staff. Being told what to do in the event of an emergency landing, or where the life jackets are, has the tendency to raise the pulses of even the most frequent of fliers. Many brands, however, are reinventing this material in fun, disarming ways.

Delta made headlines for its recent safety video, a playful narrative that borrows from the cult-comedy “Airplane!” and features an appearance by none other than the much-beloved alien from the 1980s, Alf.6 Bending the traditional form of the PSA, Delta was able to convey the required information while not only defusing the thought of emergency with humor but also affording the brand hip cache (and a favorable write-up in the New York Times). Other big-name airlines, like Southwest and Virgin America, followed up with similar revamps, which included rapping flight attendants and wonderfully choreographed dance videos.

These ingenious, light touches reflect the reality that airlines may fly at 30,000 feet but still aren’t above the influence of multiple forms of packaging. Many companies, particularly the most successful, rightfully see this reality as a unique opportunity and take full advantage of it, seeking out every bit of real estate right under the noses of passengers to successfully brand — or rebrand — the consumer experience from start to finish.