KLM Gave VR Headsets to Budget Airline Passengers So They’d Feel Like They’re on KLM

What you're missing if you had the money

Flying isn’t what it used to be, so more people opt for budget airlines. They will (usually) get where you need to go, but you also know not to expect a pleasant experience. Will your luggage be small enough for the cabin, or will you have to pay an exorbitant rate to check it?

And forget food. If you get that, you got lucky.

With this in mind, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, part of the Air France-KLM family, launched the KLM Flight Upgrader, a virtual reality experience that (almost) enables you to escape your budget flight … without paying the brand-name airline cost.

Distributed at no cost to people waiting to board budget flights for JFK New York, the KLM Flight Upgrader makes a compelling promise: From your paper-thin seat, spend hours holding the app to your face and enjoying everything a KLM flight would have offered you—entertainment, newspapers and the enjoyment of watching a “caring crew” issue a proper meal you can only hope to taste. (Toss a peanut into your mouth. Salt is salt, right?)

“Just pop this thing on your head and you can use virtual reality to escape the real reality of your flight,” a narrator brightly tells us.

Passengers can spend as much time aboard the virtual flight as they wish, and can watch either the full episode of a show, or 10 minutes of a blockbuster movie. Better yet, peer down to scope the leg room. Don’t kick, though.

This last illustrates the masochism of the concept, which in some ways eclipses its cleverness. KLM never addresses why people take budget flights in the first place: Flights are expensive, even as the perks begin to vanish; a budget airline at least assures you get somewhere without having to skip a mortgage payment. On a recent trip, I took a budget international flight that cost around $500. KLM’s sister brand Air France proposed upwards of $3,000.

Faced with this dissonance, it’s too easy to pretend people opt to suffer through budget flights because they simply don’t know how much better an established brand experience will be. Distribution of the Flight Upgrader was relatively small, so user impact is probably the least relevant part of this story, but we’re not convinced it did much more than rub salt in the wound.

Not that that matters. KLM isn’t stupid; this is a promotional play, and it’s hedging bets in the budget arena. Air France recently shared news of its own budget offering: Joon, targeted to younger users and blessed with the improbable tagline, “Also an airline.”

In any event, users looking to escape some future airborne reality (or simply watch a free TV show) can download the KLM Flight Upgrader app from Google Play and the App Store, then use their own VR headset to make the magic happen. A limited quantity of KLM cardboard headsets—not so subtly labeled “Do not disturb—pretending to fly KLM”—are still available and can be requested free of charge on the website.