Randall Cohen is a titan of travel pillows — you know, those croissant-shaped neck doohickeys that passengers lived without for decades until, early in this century, humanity collectively determined that it was impossible to board a plane without one.
Cohen’s family runs SNI, an industry leader in the bustling field of travel comfort products, selling 5 million pillows a year, many under the Clöudz brand. Yes, with an umlaut, though SNI is based in Bensalem, Pennsylvania, outside Philadelphia. The bestseller is the Clöudz Dual Comfort Microbead Travel Neck Pillow — “Dual comfort! Use it as lumbar support!” — available in more than 30 fashion iterations, including camouflage and unicorn.
But even the pillow titan concedes, “People really hate them.”
Though, he adds, “that’s because they haven’t tried enough of the pillows out there.”
Indifference is rare, based on a recent Facebook callout.
“Well, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a stylish one.”
“They never work and I never sleep.” Also, “I have five of them.”
“Just bought another one. I hate them!”
This divisive object, in all its plush, polystyrene microbead wonder, epitomizes the existential suffering of economy air travel. In our battle against the stress and spatial constraints that airlines have wrought, we have armed ourselves with a woefully inadequate weapon — cumbersome, absurd and forgettable, with legions abandoned on plane seats and in crammed closets. The pillow is a symptom of what we crave and a reminder of how far we fall short. It’s a reminder that we’re all too darn tired.
Adults look absurd sleeping in public: flopping head, snapping chin, snoring, drooling, mouth agape. (Children are another matter. A sleeping child is a sonnet.) Travel pillows compound the folly by enveloping the neck with a felt boa constrictor. They make a natural, if unseemly, act appear unnatural and jarring. In the quest for sleep, Cohen says, “people get over the fear of looking foolish.”
Do they work? Harvey Smith, an orthopedic surgeon and associate professor at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, is skeptical – and there isn’t much available data. “This isn’t well-researched, as to how much support the neck needs while you’re sleeping,” he says. “Everyone’s got an opinion on politics and religion. Everyone has a strong opinion about what works for sleep.”
Travel pillows, Smith says, are “not necessarily bad. They’re not going to cause any harm. I’m a little bemused by all these pillows.” Why do people use them? “Maybe it’s the herd mentality. Maybe it’s the placebo effect.” Smith doesn’t own one.
The human head is a heavy load, weighing approximately 10 pounds. Critics – that is, competitors – warn that the standard travel pillow doesn’t provide high enough side support to prevent lateral movement, and virtually no support in the front, where it’s needed when the chin tilts forward. (Turning around a hard pillow constricts the neck.) The rounded back doesn’t conform easily with the seat back, and the pillow doesn’t compress for easy packing (unless you have an inflatable one). It’s a tall order to get one pillow to fulfill all our needs.
“It’s the biggest gimmick in the world,” says David Sternlight, founder of Cabeau, which tries to improve on the old model. “It’s like buying a cup with a hole in the bottom. I don’t understand why someone would do that.”
A decade ago, Sternlight surveyed 2,500 travelers about the traditional U-shaped travel pillow. “Ninety-six percent wanted nothing to do with them,” Sternlight says. “The other four percent said they bought them because ‘it’s better than nothing,’ which isn’t the best endorsement in the world.”
Yet today, it’s a gimmick purchased 100 million times annually, he estimates. What helps push sales is the pillow’s ubiquity, that herd mentality and celebrities willing to look as foolish as regular folk, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Gisele Bündchen and Kim Kardashian West (stowing her pillow inside an Hermes crocodile Birkin).
Fortunately, the past few years constitute the Golden Age of Travel Pillow Innovation. Sternlight’s solution is his best-selling Evolution S3 ($39.99), which looks like a bicolor foam Bundt cake and promises to prevent “bobble-head” and “keep you from drooling on your seat mate’s shoulder.”
So many neck gizmos! So many ways of looking silly at 35,000 feet!
There’s the Ostrich Pillow, a gray “ultimate cocoon”that swaddles your head so you can rest it on the tray table. There are even holes where you can rest your hands. The brave user looks less like a mammoth flightless bird and more like a “Close Encounters” alien head wrapped in a gray sweatshirt.
There’s the Loop, which looks like a padded double-Dutch rope twisted in an X over the eyes and cheeks. Ephi Zlotnitsky invented the JetComfy, to assist the aisle and doomed middle-seat passenger. It attaches to the armrest and resembles a Swiffer for the head. How’s business? Zlotnitsky admits, “It’s very hard to penetrate this market.”
Teri Mittelstadt and her husband John sell a travel pillow that looks like a plush sash or baby sling, starting at your head and cutting across your body. When they launched Travelrest in 2008, there were 4,000 travel pillow items on Amazon. Sales skyrocketed, up 40% annually during the company’s early years. Today, Amazon offers more than 20,000 travel pillow items, and Travelrest’s annual sales are not nearly as high.
There is more of almost everything on Amazon. (Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.) But there’s been an explosion of sleep products in particular, which “goes to the emphasis on how important sleep is,” Mittelstadt says. “We’re learning that sleep matters a lot more than people think.”
One in three American adults don’t get enough sleep, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – and that’s in bed. We slept better and longer in 1942, according to a Gallup Poll, and that was during World War II.
Sleep expert Els van der Helm, who has a background in neuroscience and psychology, is the founder of Shleep, an international firm that helps executives be smarter about rest. The standard travel pillow, she says, “preys on our fear that everyone else is sleeping around you, and you won’t be able to sleep,” she says. “You have this desperate feeling, so you throw money at the problem.”
Van der Helm calls the standard travel pillow “a rip-off.” She has four of them.
The U-shaped pillow has been around since 1928, when Elizabeth Millson of Melrose, New York, patented one for the bath. The rise of the pillow for travel started in 1980s, but became ubiquitous in the past two decades, coinciding with several trends.
“What has really helped business was air travel became much more uncomfortable,” SNI’s Cohen says. “Before, you had more wiggle room to be comfortable.”
Once upon a time, commercial air travel represented the height of elegance. Passengers dressed in suits and ties, pearls and pumps. There was room – so much room! – to recline, to spread your legs, to rest.
But more passengers resulted in airlines packing more of them on each flight, like so many sweatpant-wearing sardines, by shrinking seats, leg room and reclining space.
“Airline travel has become like going to the dentist,” Oscar Munoz said in 2016, which is something, as he’s the CEO of United Airlines.
On many flights, airlines eliminated those tablet-size pillows, seemingly wrapped in gauze. Sleep, so elusive, became the air traveler’s ultimate luxury.
“Sleep is the new black,” Munoz also said. “One of our travelers said that to me. I’m not sure exactly what it meant, but it sounded real good to me.”
A passenger can pay up to four times more to get a better night’s sleep in roomy business class. That’s another cruel irony: Never before has air travel seemed so democraticized, affordable to so many, yet so stratified, turning economy into steerage with pretzels.
Plus, because of more security and more flights — which means more delays, cancellations and diversions- – passengers are doomed to spend hours in an airport, a retail and gustatory purgatory with often vertiginous prices. The travel pillow, selling for as low as $20 for two, is a rare bargain in these hell malls. (Cohen’s wife, Paula, buys a new one for almost every long flight.)
Sternlight believes the travel pillow industry will “grow and grow,” he says. “If the airlines keep packing more and more people in smaller spaces, comfort will become even more important.”
The only challenge would be if passenger comfort actually became a priority. Sternlight says, “if the airlines incorporate head support into the seat itself, well, that would be the death of the industry.”
Like that’s going to happen.
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