Cabin Mood Lighting

Introduction

While travelling on long haul flights, you might have noticed that during the course of the flight, there is a change in the cabin light’s colors. This is called cabin mood lighting. The departure from a plain old white cabin lights to a more vibrant palette of colours for the cabin happened recently. Question is – Why?

What…What…What???

Mood lighting is the combination of shades of colors of lights in an attempt to create a relaxing mood/environment in the cabin. Although each airline uses mood lighting for different reasons, the basic intention is to create a lighting scheme that complements the phases of the flight. Mood lighting has been (and still is) popular in private jets but was an optional feature on certain Airbus and Boeing airplanes. However with the newer airplanes, like the Boeing 787, the cabin mood lighting are being standardised. Mood lighting is usually done on long-haul flights but of course there are exceptions – the short-haul/regional airline with mood lighting that pops into my mind is Virgin America.

What’s in a colour?

When Virgin Atlantic introduced their ‘mood-lit cabin’ on their then new Airbus A330 aircraft back in 2011, the airline claimed that the colours in the cabin were chosen to relax and even de-stress the passengers during their journey. The colours were chosen based on the research done by Virgin Atlantic and DHA – the experts on architectural lighting.

Their research found that each colour of light had an effect on the passengers.
Apricot – created a flattering skin tone
Amber – recreates a candle light environment while dining
Pink – A relaxing colour
Purple – Created a cozy and comfortable ambience
Silver Moonlight – reflects a starry sky

Not all colours had positive effects
Yellow – agitated passengers – caused babies to cry and people to lose their tempers
Red – Very intense emotionally and causes an increase in heart beat and breathing

I once read in an online forum (sorry, I don’t remember where) where one of the posts mentioned that the mood lighting in the aircraft was done in relation to the time outside the airplane. Another common belief is that the mood lighting is done in relation to the time at the destination. Either way, the different colours of light are used to simulate various times of the day.

But…how does this work?

Air Canada’s website claims that the ‘Ambient’ mood lighting helps ease jet lag. What is the science behind mood lighting? Does it really help ease jet lag? Well … let me first introduce you to the hypothalamus in our brains. The hypothalamus is responsible for the regulation of our eating, sleeping, sexual and hormonal function. Within our hypothalamus, there is a small area called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) that governs circadian rhythms. Circadian rhythms is basically a fancy name for our biological clock that occur on a 24-hour cycle. Sleep and wakefulness follows a circadian rhythm and a de-synchronization of this rhythm (in our case because of a long distance flight) can cause jet lag.

The intensity of light falling onto our retina, triggers the SCN to regulate the release of melatonin (the sleep hormone) by the pineal gland. In the morning (think of any colour of light in the cabin), the light triggers the SCN to decrease the release of melatonin by the pineal gland, hence waking the passenger up. At night, (think silver moonlight in the cabin), the low intensity of light triggers the SCN to increase the release of melatonin, letting the passenger fall asleep.

Theoretically, this is what the cabin mood lighting on long haul flights are meant to do. It’s supposed to let you fall asleep during the flight and arrive at your destination fresh and hence avoiding jetlag altogether. But well, people still do end up with jetlag. Now, I can’t answer that for other people but in my case, I try my best to not sleep in the aircraft. I try to enjoy every second I’m in the air. Day or night, I look out the window and take a lot of pictures of my view below.

Extra! Extra!: Lights during take-off and landing at night

Now that we know why there are lights of different colours in the cabin during our flight, what about the lack of light during take-off and landing at night? Logically, shouldn’t there be light so that passengers can continue reading and talking to other fellow passengers? The answer is no. Let’s have another quick science lesson to explain why.

When you switch off the light at bedtime, you notice that you black out for a few moments. Slowly, as you fumble your way in the direction of your bed, you realise that you are able to see quite well. This is called dark adaptation. The retina in our eyes have two types of photoreceptors – the rods and cones. The cones are responsible for colour vision and vision under bright/well lit/daylight conditions and the rods are responsible for low-light vision. Sadly, there is no quick transition between the use of either photoreceptors and this is the reason for the blackout we experience. The intensity of light does play a role – if the intensity of the light is low, the person gets out of the blackout faster. Now, lets say the cabin lights were on during take-off and landing at night. If an emergency were to occur, the passengers would experience a blackout when they are instructed to evacuate and this delay in evacuation usually doesn’t end well.

Well, I hope that answers your question(s). Let me also mention that, both the eye and the brain are very complex structures and the  concepts in my ‘science lessons’ are very basic in order to give you a general idea. This is in no way the full story. With that, I hope you enjoyed reading this post and until my next post… Happy Landings!!!

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Further Reading:

Brain Regions:

1. Hypothalamus: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypothalamus
2. SCN: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suprachiasmatic_nucleus

Dark Adaptation:

1. http://www.cns.nyu.edu/~david/courses/perception/lecturenotes/light-adapt/light-adapt.html
2. http://webvision.med.utah.edu/book/part-viii-gabac-receptors/light-and-dark-adaptation/

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