Cabin interiors key to airlines’ allure
In the struggle to increase profitability, airlines are paying an increasing amount of attention to the design of their cabin interiors as a means of building their brand and luring more passengers, as well as reducing aircraft weight.
The good news for airlines over the past year has been a resurgence in demand for air travel, as the world recovers from economic crisis. The bad news is that margins remains – in the words of IATA chief Giovanni Bisignani – “pathetic”.
This means carriers must redouble their efforts to maximise the efficiency of their operations and fill as many seats as they can – especially in their high-yield premium cabins. One vital strategy they have had to pay increasing attention to is their aircraft cabin interiors.
The newest jetliners coming into service over the next few years – Boeing’s 787 and 747-8I, and Airbus’s A350 XWB – all emphasise new cabin designs that offer passengers increased comfort. They offer more space and a greater ‘sense of space’, more daylight, lighting designed to help travellers relax, more comfortable seats, in-flight connectivity and entertainment systems that allow passengers more and more options for work and leisure while airborne.
These things give airlines an opportunity to create a strong brand for themselves and distinguish themselves from the competition. At the same time, technology is becoming available that allows carriers to save weight on their interiors, reducing fuel burn at a time when fuel prices are once again becoming a major concern.
Boeing officials have described cabin interiors as “the primary tool for an airline to show what its brand is and distinguish itself from the competition”.
With this increased emphasis on cabins, manufacturers have been simplifying the way carriers select their interiors. The way is being led by Boeing, with its 787 ‘Dreamliner’ poised to enter service in the third quarter of this year, although Airbus, too, has greatly modified its regular cabin-selection process for the A350 XWB, which is scheduled to enter into service in 2013.
Full-service carriers, threatened by low-cost rivals, are particularly cognizant of the need to offer a distinctive travel experience, particularly to their premium passengers.
Japanese national carrier Japan Airlines (JAL) has invested about 65 billion yen (US$803 million) over the past five years in product-development and enhancements. That amount covered the introduction of new seats, service improvements and renovation of lounge and check-in areas, but did not cover the carrier’s on-going fleet renewal plan.
“Demand-fluctuation risk is relatively small in the case of business passengers,” JAL said. “Cognizant of this, we have been employing a ‘premium strategy’ … and are endeavouring to enhance our premium-quality products and services targeted principally at business and other high-yield passengers.”
Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific Airways, too, prioritises its cabin interiors.
“We believe that our interiors are a tangible, three-dimensional expression of our brand,” the airline said. “As such, we always strive for excellence in cabin designs.”
Cathay periodically revamps its cabin interiors based on factors such as passenger feedback, competition and maintenance quality as it tries to maintain its reputation for the highest product standards.
Most recently, this policy was demonstrated in December, when the carrier unveiled its new business class seat, which the airline said “will help to redefine the travel experience for premium passengers beginning March 2011”.
Speaking at the unveiling event, Cathay Chief Executive Tony Tyler said: “Our new flat-bed business class seat was developed after listening to what our customers had to say and it will, I believe, underline our commitment to excellence in innovation.”
The new seat offers both privacy and openness, with a wing-back chair that gives passengers their own private space and has been carefully designed to maximise living space. The “infinitely-adjustable” seats are angled to optimise passengers’ view through the windows, and give passengers full control of in-flight entertainment system. The seat “quickly converts into a bed that is one of the longest and widest provided on any commercial airline,” Cathay says.
[Subhead:] Interior artwork
As the icing on the cake, the new business class cabin will feature all-original artwork by Hong Kong artist Maria Lobo. The first aircraft to feature the new cabin will be an Airbus A330-300, which was scheduled to enter service on flights to Sydney in March.
“The new seats will be rolled out rapidly, being installed on all Cathay Pacific’s new long-haul A330-300 and Boeing 777-300ER deliveries and progressively being retrofitted on existing aircraft,” the airline said. “By February 2013, all 30 Boeing 777-300ER and 20 long-haul A330-300s in the fleet are expected to have the new product.”
Singapore Airlines (SIA), too, puts great emphasis on its cabin environment, helping the carrier become the most-awarded airline in the world – racking up numerous prizes in 2010, including its 22nd ‘Best Global Airline’ award from Conde Nast Traveller and the ‘Best Carrier for First and Business Class’ prize in Travel Weekly’s Reader’s Choice awards.
SIA said it undergoes a cabin revamp every four to seven years, depending on competition, technology and market factors. Each such revamp costs in excess of US$100 million.
In 2006 and 2007, the carrier relaunched all its cabin products on the Boeing 777-300ER and Airbus A380 as the new ‘Superjumbo’ entered service. The carrier’s New First and Business Class products were designed by JPA, which has also worked with JAL, while the suites offered on the A380 were designed by a team from France-based Blubay Yachts.
Then in July 2009, the airline launched a cabin retrofit programme to introduce the latest interior products to some of the carriers other 777s.
An initial batch of seven B777-300s were refitted with the carrier’s most recent cabin offerings, including the installation of new first- and business-class seats, improvements in economy class and in-flight entertainment system enhancements. The programme was aimed at offering flyers additional comfort and more space, as well as creating greater product consistency across the fleet.
Defying the downturn
That programme was launched in the depths of the recession, underlining SIA’s belief in the importance of a high-quality cabin product.
“The cabin renewal programme, launched in spite of the business challenges the world’s airlines are facing, is an investment in improving our customers’ travel experience,” the carrier said at the time.
A further cabin upgrade was announced in February last year, covering 11 777-200s, which were reconfigured with 38 business class and 228 economy seats, featuring the airline’s most recent product offerings.
For their part, the aircraft manufacturers are trying to make it easier for customers to put together attractive, comfortable cabins that truly reflect the carrier’s brand.
In December 2006, Boeing opened a completely new type of facility at its plant in Everett, Washington, intended to provide 787 customers with an environment where they could make all their interior configuration decisions. The manufacturer said the idea of its so-called ‘Dreamliner Gallery’ is to trim lead times for 787 interior configurations to six months.
For the first time, customers could make their interior decisions from a catalogue in a “one-stop shopping area”, Boeing said.
Previously, carriers had to visit suppliers around the world to view and compare seats, galleys and other cabin-interior elements before they could define a configuration. To view all available seats for a 787, for instance, and customer would have had to travel to manufacturers in France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the USA.
According to the aircraft manufacturer, the old process was costly, time-consuming and risky, with the potential of unforeseen certification problems arising. At the Dreamliner Gallery, on the other hand, customers can make all major supplier decisions in one place, secure in the knowledge that everything on offer has been pre-certificated and will not cause problems in integration.
The facility covers an area of 54,000 square feet and presents customers with options covering seating, galleys, in-flight entertainment (IFE), emergency equipment, fabrics and other items.
Seat options in the 787 catalogue cover both premium seats and six different brands of economy-class seat, each rated by Boeing for comfort, size and other factors. Customers are also given the option of incorporating their own, unique innovations to maintain a distinctive brand. The seats are displayed mounted on actual 787 seat racks and can be moved to show various amounts of seat pitch.
A galley showroom displays a range of items such as ovens and coffee makers, which customers can view and operate in a fully-functioning kitchen.
Flight deck and crew rest area mock-ups are also on show, as well as a full-scale cabin mock-up, where customers can experience things like their lighting selection in a realistic environment.
The backbone of the Gallery is a virtual configuration tool called eConfig, which allows customers to upload their preferences onto a computer terminal, which then offers a virtual tour through the aircraft cabin. Elements of the configuration can be changed with a click of the mouse.
Boeing’s European rival Airbus, too, has adopted a simplified interior selection process for the new A350 XWB widebody twinjet, which will compete with larger versions of the 787 and some models of the 777.
The Toulouse based company said it offers A350 XWB customers choices of cabin suppliers in much the same way as it has hitherto offered engine choices. Airbus has a catalogue of contracted suppliers, guaranteed to meet technical and performance specifications. Airlines will then be able to choose from these suppliers and negotiate prices directly.
Airbus said the new system will substantially trim lead times compared with previous, more cumbersome, interior selection processes, while ensuring improved systems integration and offering better reliability from the start of service.
Airbus change the interior selection process in part because of pressure on aircraft pricing as airlines become ever more cost-conscious. The change has also been driven by the fact that the A350 programme is following a tighter development schedule, since it is reaching the market behind the rival 787.
Additionally, the manufacturer wants the aircraft to adapt easily to different types of route, allowing carriers to modify their fleet according to market needs and helping lessors quickly place aircraft returned from a lease with new operators.
Up to now, Airbus has offered customers a choice of interior equipment from a catalogue listing qualified suppliers for buyer-furnished equipment (BFE). The customers would then have to negotiate with the suppliers themselves, and would be contractually responsible for choosing the right equipment and ensuring it is delivered on time.
The new system designates some interior items – such as seats and IFE systems, which are traditionally BFE – as ‘Airbus-contracted supplier’ (ACS) items, making their selection similar to that of other aircraft systems.
Thus, suppliers have been chosen via a more thorough qualification process, much earlier in the aircraft programme than in the past, allowing them to take part in the joint-definition phase. This, in effect, makes them programme partners, with a contractual obligation to ensure that all technical aspects of the equipment they provide, including quality, supply chain and product support, are in order ahead of time.
Airbus said the A350 XWB interior selection system will offer a lead time of eight months – about 30 percent shorter than the current A330/340 widebody family. The manufacturer added that it will still agree to install BFE seats in its premium-class cabins to maintain the customer’s ability to customise its product.
Hamburg Expo offers interiors showcase
Cabin comfort, utility, weight and entertainment issues will all come to the fore when Germany’s Hamburg Messe hosts this year’s Aircraft Interiors Expo on 5-7 April. The exhibition covers the entire spectrum of the cabin interiors market and attracts airline buyers from around the world.
At the show, airline seat specialist Recaro will be presenting one of its lightest economy-class seat designs yet. The company’s engineering team has significantly reduced the weight of each Basic Line 3520 seat to less than 11kg, making it about 30 percent lighter than the previous model.
That weight reduction has been achieved through a combination of the use of high-tech materials and careful design. The seat also creates more living space for passengers, since the magazine pocket is positioned above the tray table instead of in front of the traveller’s knees.
Responding to demand for ‘softer’ surfaces around passengers during flights – particularly next to first- and business-class flat beds, MGR Foamtex will be displaying a new, patented, soft trim panel at the show.
Cathay Pacific’s new business-class product, which is now being installed across the airline’s long-Airbus A330-300 and Boeing 777-300ER fleets, uses MGR SoftWall to line headboards and cover bed extensions. Developed in partnership with Zotefoams, MGR SoftWall meets stringent flammability requirements and uses high performance foam that is three times lighter than silicone-based alternatives. It is also hypo-allergenic, while its sound-deadening properties make it ideal for crew rest areas too.
Leading aviation seat cushion supplier Franklin Products conducted research into the ergonomics of airline seats during last year’s Aircraft Interiors Expo, and will be sharing the full findings of this work with customers and VIP visitors during this year’s show.
The research included investigations into factors affecting passenger comfort levels, including the height and firmness of seat cushions and the sense of space around a seat.
Three different seat cushions – of increasing levels of firmness – were tested at a variety of seat heights. The softest cushion was placed at the top height and the firmest at the lowest. While the overall response was positive to all the different settings, the softest cushion gained the most approval and the top seat height, although not dramatically different from the other two, was felt to provide the best thigh support and comfort.
Making its debut at this year’s Expo is another seat cushion specialist: Aerofoam Industries. At the event, the company it will be introducing a line of innovative, lightweight, high performance foams for aircraft seat cushions. Development of the foams has been driven by current market needs for cushions offering increased comfort with significant weight reductions, helping to save fuel costs.
The company believes its new flotation foam, at 24kg per cubic metre, is the lightest flotation foam currently available that is also able to be recycled.