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Aircraft Manufacturer Changing Design to Accommodate Aging Passengers


In 2006, the oldest of the generation known as the baby boomers -- people born between 1946 and 1964 -- will be turning 60 years old. In fact, the U.S. Census Bureau projects that nearly 8,000 people a day will turn 60 in 2006. That adds up to a lot of people getting to the age where travel can become difficult. A recent U.S. public opinion poll shows that is a top concern for Americans. Airplane manufacturer Boeing is now trying make air travel easier for senior citizens.

Twenty five-year-old Lindsey Mallory and her colleagues are aircraft design engineers at Boeing. They were sent on a trip to the future -- wearing suits and eyeglasses designed to simulate what older travelers go through. The glasses distort their vision. The padded suits limit their mobility and simulate arthritis -- all to let the designers know the difficulties the elderly face when they travel.

Aircraft manufacturer Boeing says the experience will help the engineers improve the design of airplanes' interiors -- to make them more comfortable and accessible for aging baby boomers. It is a group with vast spending power, says Dr. Joseph Coughlin of the M.I.T. AgeLab.

"Folks over 50 that have the greatest desire and the most wealth actually want to travel for travel's sake. So, this is not just a matter of social policy, this is a matter of just good business," he says.

Boeing Senior Design Engineer Vicki Curtis says there are challenges. "You cannot make a product look geriatric because nobody wants to say, 'I am getting old’."

Designers are now experimenting with easier door locks, better signs, and improved airline bathrooms. One model is relatively large, well lit and has bars for people to grab onto if they need extra support.

One Boeing engineer says the changes need to be made, otherwise more than half of the U.S. population will not be able to travel.

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