Photos: how Airbus plans to put passengers in the cargo hold

By David Flynn, June 25 2018
Photos: how Airbus plans to put passengers in the cargo hold

EXCLUSIVE | Join Australian Business Traveller as we go below decks on a tour of Airbus’ innovative design concept for putting passenger lounges and bunk beds into an aircraft's cargo hold.

I’m at the sprawling Airbus headquarters at Toulouse, France, but visiting a part of it which very few people see: the cabin mock-up centre where airline executives come to decide on fitting out their new Airbus jets.

Those decisions are aided by full-size cabin mock-ups of the Airbus commercial jet family, from the nimble single-aisle Airbus A320neo (above) to the mighty A380 superjumbo (below).

But tucked away out of sight, down two levels of gantry stairs in this already high-security building, is what may be the next leap forward in cabin design for ultra-long range aircraft: custom-designed 'lower deck modules' which transform part of the cargo hold into a sky-high version of a railway sleeper berth.

Airbus is pitching the concept at airlines making ultra-long flights, as a way to provide additional space for passengers without taking away from the precious real estate of the main cabin.

Upstairs, downstairs…

After the flight takes off and reaches cruising altitude, you’d descend a set of stairs located near the front of the upper deck.

This takes you into a customised crib built to the same footprint as a standard aircraft cargo container.

In this mock-up, Airbus has stitched together several such modules to create a single flowing space.

The first area contains six single bunk beds, with steps so that passengers can climb to the upper bunk.

This is what Qantas CEO Alan Joyce has suggested could be "a new class" of travel with "berths like on a train" for the globe-striding jets of the airline's ambitious Project Sunrise, which aims to link Sydney and Melbourne non-stop to London and New York by 2022.

(That said, the current design doesn’t permit these spaces to be occupied during take-off and landing. Passengers would pay for both a regular seat upstairs – perhaps in premium economy or economy – and a bulk bed below.)

Several shelves provide space for cabin bags and other personal items.

A lower-deck lounge?

Past the bunk beds are modules shaped more around seating to provide travellers with a different, more social space.

A sliding door opens to reveal what is ostensibly a meeting room above the clouds...

... with banquette seating for nine people wrapping around a conference table.

This is just one take on what could be offered as a more open exclusive lounge for business class and first class flyers, as Airbus suggests in this sketch.

A more casual version is this corner area…

… while there’s also a small refreshment bar which Airbus has dressed up with drinks.

This more Spartan space, dressed with only a handful of chairs, allows the Airbus boffins and airline executives to toss around other ways in which a passenger module could be used.

Possibilities already on the blackboard include a family room...

... and even a medical facility.

Max headroom

I'm not an overly tall guy – at 1.75 metres, I'm bang on average for the European male – but with the ceiling height around 1.6 metres, moving around this below-decks space requires me to be crouched over and scuttle along with measured steps.

The straight lines, flat surfaces and overwhelming whiteness of the space feels as if I’m in a submarine designed by Ikea.

This in turn makes me ponder how a good designer – individuals such as Qantas’ David Caon or Cathay Pacific’s Ilse Crawford, or the teams at PriestmanGoode or JPA Design – could use colours, materials, textures and gentle lighting to transform this blank palette into a cosy den.

There’s still plenty to be done before Airbus can bring this concept to market around 2020, but the company is already pitching the idea to Qantas in the Project Sunrise bidding war, which will see the long-legged A350ULR going up against the next-generation Boeing 777X.


David Flynn is the Editor-in-Chief of Executive Traveller and a bit of a travel tragic with a weakness for good coffee, shopping and lychee martinis.


24 Feb 2017

Total posts 14

They could paint the walls/ceilings yellow and stream "We all live in the Yellow Submarine" on playback repeat. :)

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

02 Jul 2011

Total posts 1377

Perfect to test out the fake/tv screen windows with.

For its proposed UHL aircraft QF could put a big bar down there and use more of upstairs for seats.

Bunk beds I'm less sure about. They will undoubtedly be heavy, the F/J pax don't need them and I'd be unsure if enough Y pax would pay a premium or if it would more attract J pax dropping back

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

07 Dec 2014

Total posts 173

Curious how you would evacuate the space in an emergency within the 90 second requirement ... presumably because you have seating upstairs for take off and landing the theory is you wouldn't need to, but wonder what regulators would make of that.

Also, couldn't they just fit a bunch more cheap seats down here instead; like super economy; creating a double deck plane out of a single deck aircraft?

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

14 Mar 2017

Total posts 152

You just answered your own question.

24 Apr 2016

Total posts 23

Passengers are not allowed to be in the cargo hold during taxi, take-off, landings.

The extra beds and lounges wouldn't be there to replace the seat upstairs. It's mere extras for economy class passengers to stretch out.

In an emergency landing, all the passengers wouldn't be allowed to be in the cargo hold.

04 May 2018

Total posts 43

moa999 +1

Maybe suitable for a sports team on a very long haul flight - with their own secluded private bar?
Airlines are weight limited so sell comfortable economy plus seats (at economy fares) and some space for freight or always profitable airmail!

04 May 2018

Total posts 30

Interesting. So you would have to be in a seat upstairs for takeoff and landing. Then you go are down stairs and settle in, on comes seatbelt sign for turbulence or whatever reason does that mean you have to be woken up if sleeping and all make a mad dash upstairs to your seat and strap yourself in.

31 Jan 2017

Total posts 9

Makes no sense to me as these module style units and locking features will probably be heavier in weight than the Cargo & Mail they replace. When you consider all the extra cost and logistics positioning these various units around an Airlines network , then surely freight is a far more practical and profitable revenue means.

26 Jul 2015

Total posts 75

Back to the old days of the Boeing Stratocruiser.


Singapore Airlines - The PPS Club

11 Jul 2014

Total posts 50

I see this concept providing great flexibility/utilisiation for the fleet. If QF fit/provide on the upper deck the number of business seats required for medium haul, e.g. Asia, this is typically less than long haul (US & Europe). Then add the bed module or two when travelling to Europe and the US. Most typical J class flyers would be happy with a premium economy seat and a bed downstairs


22 Dec 2012

Total posts 35

The bunk beds look absolutely fantastic, I would definitely pay for this on a long-haul red-eye flight. With modern materials (e.g. carbon fibre) it would be easy to build lightweight bunk beds. I wouldn't be surprised if the bunks stack three high.

I know that some premium travellers might turn their nose up to bunking, but corporate clients will be well aware that an adequately rested employee is essential to productivity. Cargo-hold bunking could become a much more cost-effective method to achieve this.

29 Mar 2018

Total posts 20

What a terrible idea. How much would they charge for this space to make it more profitable than cargo? At only 1.6 metres high most people would not even be able to stand straight up. Hate to be walking around down there when you hit turbulence.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

22 May 2018

Total posts 67

Toilets??? Would you have to dash upstairs???.

It looks like it would be a "quiet zone".. an odd snorer or two on a top bunk could produce some interesting interactions.

17 Sep 2015

Total posts 388

Rail sleeping (not 'sleeper') berths always have windows.

These don't. No to 'fake windows' thank you.

The height limitation makes this impractical. I too would be interested to know regulators' attitude to such concepts.

8 out of 10 for trying but excuse the cynicism: I just don't believe we'll see this anytime soon. Easier for airlines to rely on freight to fill the belly, and luggage also requires space in the hold.


23 May 2014

Total posts 119

I think the premise is you aren’t going to be carrying much freight on these ULH routes. The economics wouldn’t stack up given how much extra fuel you’d need at the beginning of the flight, and freight doesn’t mind an extra stop en route (plus almost nothing is so time critical that a 4 hour saving is worth the extra cost). And pax bags don’t take up all of the available space.

So - if the cargo space is going to fly empty anyway, why not try to do something innovative to make ULH more bearable (esp in economy). My favourites are the kids play area and the bar... or a combination of the two ;)

It won't be sleeping as that cannibalises J. At 1.6m clearance it's hard to think of a logical use other than a bar - which then begs the question, who gets to go there? The J bar on VA1 had the same four people sitting there for almost 10 hours last time I flew it.

Emirates Airlines - Skywards

19 Jan 2018

Total posts 23

Interesting concept, but clearly there a many logistical and commercial questions yet to be asked and answered before this becomes a reality.

Key question for me: who gets to use the space? Could it be anyone who's willing to pay for it, regardless of what class they're travelling in? That is, you pay as per normal for your seat upstairs, and pay extra for your sleeper berth downstairs? The word "expensive" comes to mind!

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

14 Mar 2017

Total posts 152

"After the flight takes off and reaches cruising altitude, you’d descend a set of stairs located near the front of the upper deck."

I think its pretty clear who's going to use this. It's going to be expensive, and it's going to be for business and luxury travellers. Even at a higher density of bunks (coffin, anyone?), this would be impossible to justify for an economy traveller.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

11 Apr 2018

Total posts 3

I've made this comment before on a previous thread. The height restriction of 160 cm will render the concept useless !

working in airfreight and being around the ULD containers every day......believe me when I say its totally impractical for many many reasons....payload...container positioning ...lost cargo revenue ..the list goes on

Cathay Pacific - The Marco Polo Club

28 Mar 2018

Total posts 2

Reckon this could be a great opportunity to have an area where adults with kids would be situated, that way noisy kids and babies could no longer disturb other pasengers.

Btw why do airlines allow young babies, from my experience they often cry or scream during flight, into the business cabin? How can that be fair on fellow passengers? My wife and I experienced the joys of this during a night flight from Brisbane to HongKong late last year, the parents seemed totally indifferent to the annoyance and disturbance this caused around them.

Thai Airways International - Royal Orchid Plus

13 Jan 2017

Total posts 31

Travelling in a group - here is an idea. Say 4 adults. Biz class for 2, and Y for 2. After take off and meals, 2 biz class pax go down for a nap, and the 2 Y pax come up to use the J seats.
Halfway through the flight they swap over. Before landing everyone back to their original seats. Split the cost over the group to make it more economical


Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

03 Apr 2016

Total posts 2

Can't think of anything worse than being stuck in a 'hold' and paying a premium for it. Hygiene standards are pretty dismal these days with mankind sneezing and spraying, lack of hand washing etc.and companies cost cutting and quick turnarounds so that proper sanitisation is not carried through. How would they control noise, drinking, 'mile high, badly behaved kids and adults alike. For my money, increase the legroom and avoid seats being reclines in economy.

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