New horizons: Slider
© Thomas Pirot

New horizons

  • TEXT LASLO SEYDA
  • PHOTOS THOMAS PIROT

A Lufthansa FlyingLab gave experts the chance to talk digitalization and new technologies above the clouds as they flew to the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas.

Flight LH448 is way ahead of its time – and not only in terms of flight schedule. Anyone waiting at Gate Z50 in Terminal 1 at Frankfurt on this particular morning in March 2019 could witness an unusual spectacle: Amplitudes of every color drifting and zigzagging across large flat screens and meters away, a square staked out with multiple small cameras. They show a young man in chunky black glasses ambling across the granite floor, reaching out into the empty space around him – obviously moving through a virtual space. On a small platform beside the counter, a blond woman in a dress, trousers and boots in space- age silver is clearing her throat into her headset mic, ready for her sound check. But instead of the usual “test, test, test,” she chants “In-sta-gram.” It’s all pretty weird and bewildering.

New horizons

The sky's the limit: Impressions from the FlyingLab Airbus on its flight to Austin

© Thomas Pirot

 The Airbus A330-300 due for boarding shortly will not be making an ordinary scheduled flight. No, it’s on a mission to open new horizons – in more ways than one. For one thing, it’s the first direct Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt to the Texan capital, Austin, a new Lufthansa destination as of May 2019. And for another, a Lufthansa FlyingLab will be taking place on this flight, which has been scheduled to coincide with the start of Austin’s innovation festival South by Southwest, SXSW for short. On FlyingLab flights, Lufthansa offers developers and startup founders, creative minds and visionaries a forum to discuss digitalization, future technologies and tomorrow’s social trends in the microcosm of a passenger airplane, and also films and streams the proceedings throughout the cabin. Essentially, it’s an airborne conference on the future. Today’s flight will give passengers a foretaste of SXSW.

Before the plane even takes off, Chagall, the silver-clad Dutch singer, gives her first performance to an electronic backing track. Her LED-studded gloves flash red, purple and blue as she curls her hands into fists, spreads her fingers, rotates her wrists and waves her arms. With her big poses and small gestures, she controls the treble, bass, rhythm, volume and tempo of the music – a synthesizer on two legs.

New horizons

Spaced out: Dutch musician Chagall in action ...

© Thomas Pirot
New horizons

... and preparing for her show

© Thomas Pirot
New horizons
© Thomas Pirot
New horizons

The gig was recorded for the Web

© Thomas Pirot
New horizons

Typical for a FlyingLab: creative scene meets business

© Thomas Pirot

 When boarding begins, an astonishing number of passengers in beanies, wire-rimmed glasses and oversize cardigans join the line, all holding a smartphone or two, snapping, filming, Twittering and Instagraming for all they’re worth. Some are even loading their favorite songs into the open, location-based Spotify playlist set up for this flight with the app HRMNZR.

As well as the many techies on board, there are a few aircraft enthusiasts. Two of them, sitting in row 35, have stuck a GPS receiver to the cabin window to track the airplane’s position and record the data on their tablet. “Purely out of interest,” they explain when asked; they are both amateur pilots. “A few decades ago, crossing the Atlantic on board a twin-engine jet was something no one dared to dream of,” one of them says, while his neighbor connects with the Wi-Fi provided by several routers that have been set up on this FlyLab flight.

The main impression is how amazingly open and communicative the atmosphere is on board. Everywhere, there’s bright chatter, people talking shop, lively discussions across rows of seats. The moment the plane reaches cruising height, the first people leap out of their seats, open their notebooks and stand in the aisle, telling each other about their projects, networking – digitally and the old-fashioned, analog way. It’s a bit like a hacker club meeting. And in the middle of it all sit passengers who came aboard completely unaware that they had landed in a flying tech conference. Some are a little perplexed at first, but many are interested to know what else will be happening before they touch down in Texas.

Over the next five hours, a dozen speakers claim the microphone to talk in turn about cashless payments, artificial intelligence, brand collaborations, digital vocational and further training, and the reinvention of business events. Technicians move through the cabin, laying cables, connecting loudspeakers and getting the video equipment ready for interviews and presentations.

New horizons

Hip-hop way up high: Rapper Kelvyn Colt's gig

© Thomas Pirot

 Finally, a mixing desk is set up at the front – entertainment time. Seatbelt signs off; rapper Kelvyn Colt on – hip-hop live at 10 000 meters. Colt, sporting platinum-blond hair, signet ring and camouflage jacket, bounces up and down to the beat and gesticulates wildly at the cameras ­ac­companying him through the cabin, then does some fist-bumps in Business Class. Cabin coolness – or in rap speak: pretty fly!

Then, just before the airplane comes in to land in Austin, it’s time to chill with the performance artists of The Waldorf Project. For the passengers, this means armrests up, seats back, window blinds down and all lights off. Over the next half hour, two women in luminous kimonos pass up and down the aisles of the darkened aircraft to strains of meditation music, stroking the face of a passenger here, laying a hand on a passenger there, entrancing people with their gaze – and all the while gliding, apparently weightless. Graceful, uplifting, out of this world and most certainly unusual, the performance makes an altogether fitting conclusion to this FlyingLab flight.

New horizons

Avant garde: one of the performance artists of The Waldorf Project

© Thomas Pirot
New horizons
© Thomas Pirot

GETTING THERE

Lufthansa is operating five weekly flights from Frankfurt (FRA) to Austin (AUS) in May. Use the app to calculate your miles: miles-and-more.com/app