A flying recovery room

Nov 20, 2016 - 3:00 PM

Russia’s Sukhoi Civil Aircraft Company hopes it has a sporting chance of attracting customers to a forthcoming variant of its Superjet SSJ100 airliner. Called the SportJet and scheduled for certification in 2018, the aircraft will target professional and amateur athletic teams’ charter flights. That’s a $600 million-per-year global market, according to the manufacturer.

Why would a soccer, rugby, hockey, or other team need a specially designed jet? Sukhoi’s answer might interest you, even if your competition isn’t the kind played out on turf.

The SportJet’s goal is to minimize the downside of a long flight and enable exhausted athletes to rest and recuperate on their way to the next match. According to Sukhoi, “innovative medical and IT solutions” are the key to the aircraft, which has four zones: the main cabin plus areas for recovery, coaching, and administrative functions.

The natural enemies of a restful long flight include jet lag, dehydration, physical stress, and hypoxia. To combat jet lag, the single-aisle aircraft incorporates computerized adaptive lighting that can help get passengers’ circadian rhythm back in sync with the destination’s time zone. This is a feature that’s starting to find its way onto business jets, too.    

The SportJet also offers “Smart Chairs” that lie flat for sleeping. The seats have fingertip-mounted bioimpedance sensors to ­monitor heart rate, blood-oxygen concentration, and hydration levels. The “Recovery/Medical-Biological Zone” incorporates a massage table and other recuperative equipment found in sports teams’ training rooms. After a tough business negotiation, a challenging weekend on the slopes, or even a long night in the casinos of Monte Carlo, you might feel the need for a recovery zone yourself.

The zone also has a diagnostic capsule that displays each athlete’s physiological data, an electrocardiogram recorder, spirometer, hypoxic generator, blood-pressure monitor, pulse oximeter, and a dynamo-meter. There’s even a “smart” toilet that can flag dehydration. (I don’t think I want to know how.)

While all of these features seem impressive, it’s worth noting that virtually all current business jets already offer the technology that’s most responsible for making the SportJet superior to airliners. When it comes to dehydration, for example, an airliner’s cabin can be among the worst environments, because the humidity level is deliberately kept low. That’s to protect internal electronics and structural components from corrosion. Designers could instead add more insulation and corrosion protection, but they don’t because that would cost weight—as would the water associated with higher humidity—and in airline operations, passenger comfort often takes a back seat to profit.

That’s not the case with privately operated jets, including the SportJet, where comfort is front and center, often at the cost of added weight. The structure of a business jet is well protected from corrosion; and some such jets, including the SportJet, incorporate active humidifiers that help prevent raw noses, dry mouths, and scratchy throats.

As for the hazards of hypoxia, the catastrophic failures seen in disaster films—the ones that lead to incapacitation—are only part of the story. Even when all systems are working fine, the pressure in the cabin of many airliners—and the resulting paucity of oxygen—could still replicate the atmosphere at 10,000 feet, or higher. Low-grade hypoxia from hours spent under those conditions might not cause you to pass out, but it could give you a whale of a headache. And it certainly makes flying long distances more exhausting, even for those able to stay hydrated and lie flat to sleep.

Unlike airliners, most business jets are designed to maintain a “sea-level cabin” at lofty altitudes, making high flight just as comfortable and restful as a day at the beach. That level of comfort—and healthfulness—is one of the tangible advantages of private air travel that many passengers aren’t even aware of.

The SportJet’s innovative technologies could certainly give business jet outfitters some ideas to emulate. But in any modern business aircraft, you’ve already got quite a ride.