Creating the right mood

Aircraft interiors are going through a makeover as airlines seek to differentiate themselves from their competitors. By Colin Baker

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By  Colin Baker Published  February 6, 2006

In an industry that in many respects is selling a commodity product, differentiating yourself from the competition is becoming a key requirement for a successful airline. And when it comes to product differentiation, there are few things more important than the cabin. Provided there are no major hiccoughs, this is where the customer will be spending the vast majority of their time with the airline, and where they will judge that airline. In the recent past, many of the product innovations have come from carriers rather than manufacturers, with lie-flat beds being a notable example. The development of new mid-range products by Airbus and Boeing in the shape of the A350 and the 787 has, however, given the two manufacturers an opportunity to take a fresh look at cabin design. Pointing to the all-composite primary structure of the fuselage, Blake Emery, Boeing’s director of differentiation strategy, says: “The development of the 787 is a big step forward. It has enabled us to do some interesting research around the world, getting the flying public to give us their ideas on what people wanted to make the experience different.” One of the outcomes of this research is significantly larger windows for the 787. “We heard a lot of people say we want more connection with what’s going on in the outside world.” The exact window design has yet to be finalised, but is expected to be almost 25% larger than the window of a 777, with the extra space largely in the height of the window rather than the width. Passengers will also be able to dim their window at the touch of a button. David Morris, vice president of US-based PPG Aerospace, which is supplying the window-dimming system, says: “We have been exploring variable-transmittance window technology for aircraft over several years. The culmination of this effort is our involvement in the 787 Dreamliner.” Electrochromic technology uses electricity to darken an electrically conductive medium between two layers of glass. Turning off the electricity bleaches, or lightens, the medium. The system will allow passengers to adjust the amount of light transmitted to five different levels from dark to clear, with a manual override for use by the flight crew. The dimmable window panels will be inserted between the exterior cabin window and interior plastic dust cover. Morris notes that the new window systems will not only provide light control, but also enhance the interior appearance and comfort of the aircraft. “Passengers will be able to control the amount of solar energy that enters the cabin to reduce solar light and heat transmittance for more comfort, and there will be less stress on the heating and air conditioning system,” he explains. “Because there will be no window shades, interior space will be more attractive.” While the outside view has been one of the key elements in terms of passenger attraction, Emery says that in terms of perception, Boeing’s research has shown that the view at eye-level when sitting down is of critical importance. “We are taking advantage of the extra cross-section of the 787,” explains Emery, pointing to the extra 15 inch cross-section width of the 787 compared with today’s equivalents. “There is a lot of space as one looks up.” More importantly perhaps, Boeing is seeking to control the aircraft’s lighting to create a sense of space. “The ceiling goes on for ever and ever and then disappears,” says Emery. Boeing is also looking to develop the concept of mood lighting, something that is becoming more common on long-haul flights as airlines attempt to create a sense of well-being for their passengers, even if the alarm bells are ringing on their body clocks. “We are in the throws of dealing with mood lighting right now,” says Emery. “We will have an all-LED lighting system that will enable airlines to create different scenarios. They might want different lighting depending on whether they are boarding people, taking off, cruising, serving breakfast, lunch or dinner,” says Emery. “It is our philosophy that lighting can become a differentiator.” He warns that Boeing has noticed one or two drawbacks with advanced lighting systems, however. “If you are not careful, you will have food that looks green or blue,” he warns. The sense of space also applies to the overhead luggage bins. “These have been sculptured so that they are nearly flush with the sidewalls,” explains Emery. “They don’t pull out very much, but when you open them, you will be impressed. You have all the room you need.” Boeing is also striving to create a spacious first impression. “We are seeking to do things with the entryway,” says Emery. “When walking from the jetway to the entryway, we want the passenger to feel like they are walking from the inside of a building into the open air. Today’s experience is the opposite. People begin to feel more and more trapped, more and more compressed” he says. “This is not necessarily at a conscious level. A lot of what we are looking at is at a sub-conscious level.” Of course, with the final decision on configuration down to the airline, ideals such as spacious entryways may have to be compromised. “Some low-cost carriers want to put seats into the entry-way,” notes Emery. Passengers will also be able to enjoy the benefits of wireless in-flight entertainment (IFE) systems, which will also have comfort benefits. “At the moment, every now and then when you put your feet under the seat there is a box in the way. That is the IFE system. It may be only a few passengers have this problem, but it will happen,” says Emery. “The wireless IFE system gets rid of this problem.” Airbus says the A350, although based on the A330, will match Boeing when it comes to improved customer comforts. Again, creating a feeling of space is very high up the agenda. Speaking at last year’s Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg, Airbus director for payload accommodation Sophie Pendaries said: “We are working on head clearance to improve the feeling of space.” In the premium cabins, this will include the creation of a high ceiling with no intrusions. Airbus will also move from a two- to three-frame lining architecture inside the cabin, a move Pendaries says will improve the impression of space. The A350 will feature sidewall and ambient lighting, and the manufacturer is also developing lighting to create a ‘virtual sky’ on the ceiling of the premium cabin. “We have presented the sky to our A350 customers and we have some positive feedback. We are confident this will be available by 2010 [the launch date],” said Pendaries. Like the 787, the A350 will also offer extra cabin space through new fuselage designs and the sculpturing of the sidewalls. Cabin windows will be 8% bigger than the A330/A340 types, and the bins will hold at least one extra roller bag in the economy section (a conservative estimate, says Airbus) and two extra in business class. Airbus has spent a lot of time looking into the issue of luggage storage. “It is not only a volume issue, but a ‘loadability’ issue. The idea is to make sure the baggage will fit the volume,” Pendaries explained. Both cockpit and cabin crews on the A350 will benefit from dedicated rest areas located respectively below the cockpit and aft cabin floors. Developed in close collaboration with airlines to be fully compliant with long haul requirements, this feature will provide direct access from the flight crew rest area to the cockpit. In addition, these rest areas ensure that space on the main deck is kept for passenger seating and services, and in the hold for luggage and cargo. Further space has been provided by the repositioning of the IFE system electronics to the back-end of the aircraft. With typical seating capacities of 253 on a A350-800 and 300 on an A350-900, Airbus says it has decided to pitch the A350 at around 10% bigger seat capacity than the 787. The manufacturer says that, with North American airlines tending to favour smaller aircraft, while European, Middle East and Asian carriers tend to favour larger aircraft, those airlines that think they can fill the extra 26 seats made available by the space savings will get cost advantages. Airbus is, of course, also working on the A380. Airlines have been loathe to give too many details of the interior design of this aircraft. What is not in doubt, however, is that there will be plenty of product innovation. Emirates, for instance, plans to have showers on board. Marc Gentil, vice president cabin completions at EADS Sogerma Services, says that the A380 is also likely to have electronic window shading. However, he predicts that, initially at least, this is likely to be reserved for first and premium economy cabins only. One advantage of this system, he says, is that passengers or crew members will be able to close all three-to-four windows in first class at the same time simply by pressing a button. The sheer scale of the A380 will also enable airlines to make use of lighting to create different moods around the aircraft, Gentil says. “You could use smooth lighting to create a quiet area,” he says, adding that some airlines at least are also likely to put in lounges and bars, with their own specific lighting designs. Seating is a matter for airlines, but with the trend towards lie-flat beds continuing apace, more of the same can be expected in the new aircraft as they come into service. Boeing’s Emery points out that the extra width available will see the type of lie-flat beds seen in first class become a distinct possibility in business class. Much of the innovation seen in commercial airline cabin design comes from the VIP sector, and this exclusive market can give some idea of the way things will be in five years time. Lufthansa Technik, for instance, is working with a UK company called Design Q on what has been dubbed Project U. The latter is developing ideas for so called “celebrity jets” based on the A319 corporate jet. The partners say: “Aspects of the customers lifestyle and vision have been incorporated into a unique interior, elements of which have helped create an extraordinary individual environment.” A ‘snug’ has been incorporated to provide a personal hide away where music and computer games can be enjoyed without disturbing the other guests. Other features include projections on the walls showing outside views, and, again, designed to create a feeling of space. Lufthansa Technik is also working on a lie-flat bed which it says “will come close to the bed you know from home — no more will the bed actually look like a seat.” All in all, it looks as if travelling by air is going to become a more pleasant experience, especially for those in premium and first class.

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