Aircraft cabin design advancements creating a new world of opportunities and challenges

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insightful examples of how inventive cabin design can be used to enhance the in-flight experience.
Icelandair’s Boeing 757 Hekla Aurora aircraft, Thomson Airways’ ‘Beach Snack Bar’ concept, KLM’s Boeing 787-9 business class, and Finnair’s A350 XWB serve as insightful examples of how inventive cabin design can be used to enhance the in-flight experience.

From flexible cabins to 3D printed parts and the removal of overhead bins to the introduction of in-flight social zones, aircraft manufacturers and airlines are presented with numerous new opportunities, choices and challenges when designing cabin interiors. At Future Travel Experience Europe 2016 (25-26 April, Amsterdam), Cristian Sutter, a leading cabin design and development specialist for Boeing 787 and Airbus A350 programmes, will lead a Co-creation Forum working group exploring how these new trends can be embraced. Ahead of this session, FTE caught up with Sutter to gauge his thoughts on the evolution of aircraft cabin design.

FTE: To what extent do you think we need a more effective method to help support cabin integration efforts (between OEMs, airlines, seat manufacturers, IFE hardware suppliers, etc.) during the aircraft cabin design and delivery process? Do you have any thoughts on how closer stakeholder collaboration can be achieved?

CS: When it comes to cabin integration, working collaboratively with all the parties involved (i.e. airframe manufacturers, seat and IFE vendors, design studios, etc.) is essential from the very early stages of the programme. Open communication, collaboration and control of the project interdependencies and risks are key to the success of any BFE (buyer-furnished equipment) programme.

For SFE (supplier-furnished equipment) programmes, as customers (airline) you are more limited since the product development is managed between the airframer and the supplier directly with very little room for the customer/airline to influence the outcome, and frequently the “one size fits all” SFE catalogue approach can leave you with very limited options of what you can/cannot do cabin-wise. The biggest challenge I see nowadays is navigating through the limitations of airframe manufacturers’ stringent SFE catalogues and the contractual limitations of the selected suppliers rather than the actual technical challenges of designing an innovative cabin solution.

FTE: The “reconfigurable cabin”, which would allow airlines to reconfigure cabins to better cater to first/business/economy demand, has been touted as a possibility. In your opinion, will the reconfigurable cabin become a reality? Also, what would be the hurdles to overcome from a certification standpoint in order to bring the reconfigurable cabin to fruition?

CS: Cabin flexibility is the Holy Grail for optimising the cabin configuration and maximising revenue at the same time. Currently, undergoing a cabin configuration change means considerable aircraft downtime (and revenue loss) and certification efforts usually leading towards an STC (supplemental type certificate). There has been progress in the last decade with the introduction of monument “flex-zones” that allow higher flexibility when a change of LOPA (location of passenger accommodations) is required, however we still have a long way to go in achieving a full flex cabin concept that allows you to quickly change the configuration of cabin zones, seat count and monuments in a “plug-and-play” fashion with reduced to non-aircraft downtime on the ground.

There is also the challenge of certifying a new cabin LOPA that could have an impact in weight and balance, structural floor loadings, water supply and even decompression. However, having a pre-certified cabin configurations portfolio could really help in quickly swapping cabin LOPAs using pre-existing STC certified configurations.

FTE: Many airlines have expressed a desire to create a more spacious cabin environment. What are the most realistic methods by which this can be achieved?

CS: From the passenger personal environment or “liveable area” (usually linked to seat pitch and width), enhancing ergonomics, optimising slim seat contours and reducing the seat envelope without disregarding comfort and increasing space at the same time, are design directions that can create a more spacious passenger environment; especially in Economy and Premium Economy cabins, since Business and First Class are indeed less space sensitive.

When it comes to general cabin environment, the densification trend shown in recent years seeking to install as many seats as possible to increase revenue goes in the opposite direction with having a more spacious cabin environment. Having said that, many airlines are realising that going too high-density could damage their products and brand and risk passengers choosing to fly somewhere else, so a half-empty high-density cabin might not seem very appealing financially after all. Increasing the social areas like self-serving bars or meeting points around galleys and using lighting to generate cabin zones could favourably increase space perception, however one step forward could be exploring completely new cabin and seating layouts making full use of the vertical dimension. Although this is not an entirely new concept, we are seeing more “production ready” ideas that are making this formerly far fetched approach a step closer to reality.

FTE: Following on from this point, how likely do you think it is that we will see an aircraft cabin without overhead cabin bins/lockers in the medium-term? To what extent do you think there is an appetite among airlines to go down this route?

CS: In the last two decades the size of the overhead bins have expanded to unthinkable volumes in clear response to the ever increasing demand from passengers to accommodate more and more hand luggage, in response to many carriers charging for hold luggage. For an overhead-bins-free cabin, perhaps the paradigm of luggage handling at both airlines and airports should evolve into a more reliable, cost-free and swift operation to convince passengers to carry less items in the cabin and more in the hold.

Some airlines are enforcing the policy of allowing only smaller carry-on bags into the cabin, whilst former regular cabin size bags are being checked into the hold for free. Whilst this could help reduce the need of installing high capacity overhead bins, they are also used to carry SEP (safety equipment and procedures) equipment and other items to support the cabin service (i.e. magazines, blankets, headphones, etc.) meeting the stowage needs from both passenger and cabin crew alike. I believe that having an overhead-bins-free cabin is a bit utopic without major changes in airports’ structure, airlines’ policies and passengers’ behaviour levels.

FTE: Airlines are constantly vying to differentiate their in-flight offer through inventive cabin design. How much difference do you think these differentiation efforts make to the onboard experience and customers’ decision-making when selecting which airline to fly with?

CS: As a cabin designer I can certainly say that cabin design is extremely important in creating the hard-products that shape the flying experience. Airlines that have realised the potential and value that cabin design can bring in shaping the passenger experience have succeeded in creating products that connect the passengers with the brand, generating the emotional link with it that leads to customer loyalty.

However, it accounts for one of many touch points that are part of the whole customer journey; in other words for cabin design to succeed within the commercial aviation industry it needs to be precisely coordinated with other disciplines (for instance, brand strategy and service design) in creating a consistent hard and soft product that will enable the platform to deliver the brand values that makes you stand out among your competitors.

FTE: What are the other key trends that you are currently experiencing in the cabin design world, which could have a telling impact on cabin design in the future? 

CS: Additive manufacturing and 3D printing technologies are gaining traction and we will see great developments in the near future as viable alternatives to traditional production methods. The intrinsic nature of these technologies is well suited for the highly bespoke and small run productions required in commercial aviation, especially for premium products. There is still some development required at parts surface finishing level and indeed their certification aspect but I believe we will see a widely spread use of parts designed to make full use of these technologies’ advantages. Another technology that will bring exciting new possibilities is light projection and even though it is still in its infancy when it comes to cabin applications, it has the potential to change the way we conceive and design cabins.