I'm lucky in that I have the time and means to travel by air for pleasure. Not lucky enough, alas, to fly first class. So this list won't cover those genuinely awesome amenities, like showers and lounges, which you will find on A380s flown by Etihad, Emirates, etc. But for this hapless traveler cramped in economy, these little innovations have made my flying experience slightly less intolerable.
- Lufthansa's downstairs lavatories. I only saw this once, a few years ago: Lufthansa honoring Germany's obsession with toilets by locating its bathrooms on a completely separate level of the fuselage. This allows for more privacy and prevents those annoying queues in the aisle. (I assume there still is a main cabin lavatory for the handicapped.)
- Qantas' computerized windows. This is a feature on all 787 Dreamliners: manual window shades have been replaced by buttons which lighten or darken your window incrementally. (The cabin crew can also control all windows en masse.) Probably not necessary, but neat.
- British Airways' window-side storage areas. I don't know what kind of jet this was, but I loved having a little cubby between my seat and the window, where I could stow my small carryon bag. It was so much more civilized than having my bag crowding my feet or inconveniently shoved in the overhead bin. When closed, the cubby's lid became a cozy mini-table, where I could rest my drink or my book.
- Air New Zealand's "Economy Skycouch". I saw this on recent flights to and from London: If you want to sleep like a first class passenger without paying first class prices, you now can – if you book three economy seats in a row. All three seats fold out to form a bed that, at 5'1" in length and 29" in width, isn't exactly king size, but it lets you relax way more than your regular economy seat ever could. For couples or solo travelers, you still have to pay for all three seats, but it's still cheaper than first class.
- Virgin America's misters. Virgin was always at the forefront of economy class amenities; I remember flying Virgin Atlantic in the 1990s and being surprised by the hip inflight magazine and the socks & sleep mask in my seat pocket. During Virgin America's brief tenure, the main cabin's misters – producing a cool, light fog that, coupled with mood lighting, made the plane feel like a nightclub – were a welcome relief after sitting in a crowded airport terminal with poor air conditioning. I don't know if Alaska Airlines has kept the misters after they merged with Virgin.
- Ordering snacks and drinks from your seat. I also first saw this on Virgin. It's now commonplace, provided you have your own seatback monitor. If you're feeling peckish or thirsty in between meals, you can order a refreshment right at your seat and the flight attendant will bring it to you. Classy.
- Air India's moong dal snacks. Let me be frank: the one round-trip I took with Air India, between New York and London in the early 2000s, was hellish. I'll never fly with them again. However, I did like the hostess standing at the door, palms pressed together, wishing passengers "Namaste". And I adored the little bags of dried moong dal – Air India's version of peanuts, only much tastier – handed out shortly afterwards.
- Airfones. These were those seatback phones that, after you slid your credit card through one, you could use to call friends and family on terra firma. They were prohibitively expensive, and most passengers felt too self-conscious to use them on a quiet flight. (I may have only used one once, possibly never.) But the technology itself was impressive for the late '90s/early '00s. They are now long gone. Curiously, while most planes now have Wi-Fi, airline policy generally prohibits you from using VOIP apps (Skype, FaceTime, etc.) on said Wi-Fi. In short, you could phone granny from your seat in 2001, but not in 2019.
- The humble seat-side coat hook. It seems that every airline outside the US has these, while no airline in the US does. It's a little metal button, the size of a nickel, located on the top left corner of the seat in front of you. Pull it out a half inch and you can hang your coat or jacket on it. Ingenious! You never need to shove your coat into an overhead bin or put it on your lap! Why US-based carriers don't standardize these devices is beyond me. It's not like Americans only fly in shirtsleeves.