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Regardless of how an plane's cabin irks you – no legroom, garbage Wi-Fi, scant overhead bin space – most of the experience is dictated by the carrier flying it. Aircraft manufacturers such as Boeing and Airbus must satisfy their customers – and you are not their customer.
This isn't to say that aircraft fleets are designed solely to pamper airline balance sheets. In most respects, new planes like the Airbus A350, Boeing 787, and Bombardier's C Series are marvels of comfort compared with models from previous decades. The air is less arid, the windows larger (and likely to get larger), and storage space is used more efficiently.
These concepts aim to bridge the divide between comfort and economics by focusing on improved design and environmental elements.
One typical stress point for air travel – whether or not there's a spot for your carry-on bag – is being addressed by taller overhead bins.
In newer Airbus models like the A350 and A330neo, cabin designers adopted an approach that rotates the bag so it sits vertically, much like a book on a library shelf, instead of the traditional, less efficient horizontal scheme.
We spoke with Ingo Wuggetzer, Airbus's vice president for cabin marketing, about cabin innovation, the tension between airline efficiency and passenger experience, and the consortium's Airspace cabin, introduced in early 2016 for the Airbus A330neo and A350 and now being extended to A320 family with launch customer JetBlue.
Q: How much of your job is a balance between what's good for the passenger vs. the airlines' business needs?
A: We do a lot of market research in order to find out the need-needs from passengers and needs from airlines. We want to create a perfect solution that is compelling for a passenger experience and to airlines' performance needs.
For instance, if you talk about a bar in an aircraft, that was very fashionable a couple of years ago. But you have to spend a lot of money to get it realised. If you think of a bar solution today, we will place that maybe in a cross aisle of an aircraft (below). So that's the balance: Offer a service and create a great passenger experience but do it in a very efficient way as well.
Q: Is there a tension between those two?
A: In the end, you know, we have one customer and that is the airline. And we try to find a solution that is a good balance to this. But it's not our position in the end what product is installed in our aircraft. That is the responsibility of the airline. But of course our interest is in that we find a solution that is compelling for both sides. I think the market is regulating that balance quite naturally.
Q: If we took money and economics out of what you do, and didn't think about airline business models, would cabins look the same? Or would aircraft designers go to a different style of architecture?
A: (Laughs) I'm thinking about, you know, what you need to do in terms of maximising revenue. You could of course put as many seats in as possible, that is one way. But there might be a smarter way. Put in different segments so that you meet your market needs best. If you go to a big hub city, you have so many passenger segments available and you can offer more and different products to them.
If you only can sell a cheap meal in a restaurant, maybe you have different courses for different prices and different tastes. You can maybe also maximise and increase your revenue by offering different stations. Maybe there's another solution about having different zones in an aircraft to fit the product at a different price and of course have a different service or comfort level.
Q: We're starting to see that with airlines.
A: Yeah, exactly. That is starting. And we see that especially happening in the A380, where you have up to five or six different classes in one aircraft.
Q: On overhead bin shortages, what can be done with that issue? In the U.S., bin space is typically allotted based on the order by which you board.
A: You see our latest aircraft innovation, like the 350. The 350 has our biggest bin by volume in the market and they don't have any problems with finding a space for your luggage. We applied that now to the A330neo as we launched the Airspace cabin with it. And one of the biggest innovations in that cabin was to increase bin volume by 66 percent. I would say a relaxed travel starts with easy boarding and stowing your luggage. And if you are afraid of not having enough space for your bag, you know, that's not a good start for a nice flight experience.
Q: Where did you find the real estate?
A: Actually, there in the 330 we have applied one idea that we grow the bin. It's definitely bigger, but we lift the luggage position instead of lying in there flat, moving it upwards.
Q: Do you use more of the ceiling space?
A: We use a little bit [more] ceiling but we also use a little bit of aisle space in the wide body [and] we lowered the bin about one inch. We have other ideas in order to get the bin situation better. For instance, what you find a lot still in overhead bins is flashlights, blankets, pillows, emergency equipment. And all that is taking away space from the passengers. And especially you find that stuff in the first rows of premium seating for passengers. So we launched some initiatives, together with airlines, to find alternative places for these elements.
Q: Where do you move things like blankets and medical equipment?
A: That's still kind of an innovation project in process. We have some ideas to put some seating storage in place.
Q: What is the biggest cabin problem right now your team is trying to fix?
A: There are two things. In terms of efficiency, we want to have more seats, what we call revenue space, for the airlines. But we want to create additional space with the same comfort standards. The same standards without compromise. Then of course, I think, we look to introduce some features that really create a better atmosphere or to provide services. I think connectivity is something that is a commodity on the ground that will be kind of normal-like an on-ground feature. Connectivity is part of your life in business, at home, but also on the aircraft.
Q: Is that a technical issue?
A: For me, it's a question of how seamlessly can you create a solution.Do you just go on board and use your tools like at home without any passwords and limitations-restrictions, and have the speed and bandwidth that you need? That is what we need to ensure. To find solutions that are very convenient for passengers and also acceptable at the cost or fee level.
Q: When people complain about sitting in economy, is that a situation where it's what the airlines want because it's been optimised toward their business models, or is it a lack of imagination from designers and airlines?
A: It's really a question of what is your personal space. We try to create the perfect space and optimise the space, even if it's a reduced one. For instance, if you talk about economy class, for us the basic comfort element or criteria is clearly the seat and especially the seat width. So we found out that the seat width is having more impact on the comfort level of a passenger than the seat pitch. Clearly one inch in width is projecting the same effect as 1.6 inch in pitch because you can move your body easier. The main argument, what we got from passengers, is that you do not have shoulder contact with your neighbor. This is a pretty key issue that you can avoid by adding that one extra inch to 18 inches (46cm) in economy.
Q: And 18 inches is the minimum for comfort?
A: That's what our standard is, 18-inch seat width on economy class.
Q: How has the industry adopted that? Is that standard now or unusual?
A: About 90 per cent of all our economy-class seats have that. And especially this is important for long-haul travel. You of course can also influence the comfort through a lot of factors. We try to keep the foot space clear in terms of, avoid boxes in your foot space. Second thing-this is also driving comfort of course-is the environment itself. We see factors like noise, we see factors like fresh air, but also ambience in terms of lighting.
Q: Five years ago, Airbus showed renderings of a transparent aircraft cabin concept that really, truly fascinated the public. Is that something we'll actually see in the next two or three decades?
A: A couple of those elements we're applying already. The strength of the cabin will increase a lot. In terms of bionic design and 3D printing ? this is a new manufacturing tool that you can use to come up with those solutions. This is starting now on a smaller scale but I think that will grow fast. By using those tools, you can design products that are half the weight but stronger than before. If you have that in place, you just need a kind of transparent metal material that makes the visibility acceptable. I'm not sure how fast we are there, to be honest. That is one solution further in the future.
Another one we are trying is to think about a cabin that has a complete OLED cover inside [Organic light emitting diode is a display technology used in some televisions] so you can project from outside cameras the whole environment. It looks the same, it's not transparent, but you have a projection that gives you the imagination of a transparency.