Airlines want to wow with cabin interior design — a creative challenge for designers within tight specs.
Getting the cabin interior balance right

“The proof is posted all over the internet.” Aviation design consultancy Lift Strategic Design Managing Director Daniel Baron’s pronouncement highlights just how important cabin interior design has become to passengers.

“Some airlines still perceive new or refreshed cabin design as a relatively low priority, on the false assumption that ‘nobody notices’,” he continues. “But the highest yield customers, such as frequent business travelers, or premium leisure travelers, do in fact notice.”

The phenomenon Baron describes is of course that of savvy travelers now having more ways and means—that is, blogs, chat rooms, and review sites—than ever of researching exactly what traveling with a certain airline will look and feel like. And with the advent of NDC (IATA’s New Distribution Capability program, see page 38), the opportunities for passengers to compare and contrast inflight environments will only proliferate.

The result of all this comparison activity is that more and more airlines are keen to give themselves the competitive edge by investing in more relaxing, luxurious, or distinctive cabin design. The cabin interior market is predicted to grow from $12.85 billion currently to $17.19 billion in 2019.

But how to go about establishing this competitive edge remains a serious challenge. The space within an aircraft is not only physically limited, but regulated by a whole range of health and safety stipulations. Added to this are the challenges of minimizing costs in a still competitive trading environment, and negotiating a supply chain that some would argue is not currently geared up to innovation.

Safety is paramount

A key issue can be how to get an innovative new design through the various health and safety testing stages and into a new fleet while it’s still in fact innovative, and relevant, to what people want.

“A long list of regulatory and practical considerations influences design of seats, galleys, stowages, lavatories, and social areas,” says Baron. “And safety is always top priority. For example, in a new seat development program, literally hundreds of tests are involved. Seat design must also consider minimum aisle clearances, the ability of the crew to see a minimum percentage of passengers during taxi, takeoff, and landing, the ability of passengers to see and reach oxygen masks, prevention of injury to passengers and seat damage by cabin equipment, intuitive operation of seat controls, and so on.”

Mark Hiller, Managing Director and COO at aircraft seat manufacturers Recaro, reports that a particularly difficult area in light of this is inflight entertainment. “The lifecycles are much shorter than for seating, for example, because the precedent is set by home electronics, which means the passenger is expecting all the newest features and tools and devices,” he says. “But, because of all the necessary certification and testing, there’s a time gap.”

Forward thinking

But Hiller, like Baron, doesn’t believe there’s a case for reappraising testing procedure. Instead his company advocates a process termed Authorisation to Offer (ATO), whereby products are tested much earlier on in the development process.

“We’ve changed to an approach where first of all we carry out focus group research with the airlines, without any order in place, to define and figure out future trends. Then we start the development up to a certain point,” says Hiller.

“Before we show the airline the product we do so much testing that we know the product is feasible. Maybe we don’t know exactly how the armrest will look, but we know what the seat structure looks like,” he continues, adding: “We do a lot of flight simulation testing before we do the hardware testing. That means when we carry out the hardware tests we have a pass rate of 99%, which really drives down lead times.”

Tom Windmuller, Senior Vice President of Airport Passenger Cargo Services at IATA, says airlines themselves are also getting increasingly savvy about commissioning futureproof designs.

“You read almost every day about innovations being introduced. For example, Lufthansa has introduced new seatback screens that dispense with the need to get a regulator’s approval every time you get a technology upgrade. You just insert something behind an already approved screen instead of replacing the screen,” he says.

“There’s always room to streamline,” he adds, “but the safety regulations are working.”

Of course, conforming to necessarily stringent safety regulations isn’t just a timeframe challenge. It’s also critical, from a health and safety standpoint, that only certain materials and designs are used, full stop.

But it’s still possible to work creatively with those certain materials, insists Jenny Ruegamer, Associate Creative Director of design consultancy Teague’s aviation studio.

“Lighting actually has a bigger impact than most things in a space,” says Ruegamer. “For one of our designs we used special fibres in the carpet that were picked up by specially engineered blue lighting.”

Regional Director of Cabin Experience and Revenue Analysis at Boeing Kent Craver agrees that cabin interior innovation is often about taking advantage of the increased customization options now available within the airframe itself, such as including vaulted windows or larger windows for striking visual effect.

Manufacturing capacity

Another potential hurdle to overcome, besides safety testing, is manufacturing capacity. Ruegamer reports that some manufacturers of cabin interior components are still highly cautious when it comes to taking risks on developing innovative products.

“I do think we see some of the manufacturers really changing their point of view on a lot of this, but in this industry nobody wants to take on risk—I see that as a huge block to innovation,” she says. “Usually the manufacturers have the schedules they have to meet and if it’s high risk they may not want to take that on.”

Cost reduction challenges

Cost can, of course, also present a barrier to innovation. But a slightly adjusted approach to cabin interior design may leave airlines with more resources to achieve the differentiation and impact they desire, says Windmuller. He believes there’s room for airlines and groups of airlines to be savvier about standardizing those elements that won’t necessarily create an impact, to free up resources for those that will.

“It’s not just the lavatory and galley placement, but equipment such as the ovens, refrigerators, and food carts,” says Windmuller. “If  groups of airlines could agree on that they would see remarkable savings.”

Counterintuitively, spending on interior improvement can often reduce costs long term, through fuel saved on lighter-weight fittings. Introducing more slimline economy seats, for example, has the added benefit of creating more leg room, and doesn’t have to be at the expense of comfort, as is sometimes believed, says Acro Aircraft Seating Commercial Director Cameron Allan.

“If you start with the right shape around your back it doesn’t need cushioning,” says Allan. “There’s still a perception that these are the cheaper more uncomfortable seats, but that’s just not the case.”

“We tell the airlines that by installing new seating they can reduce weight and have a payback period of one to two years on fuel saved. At the same time they can offer the passenger a new look and feel. That’s an argument for updating more regularly,” agrees Recaro’s Hiller.

Update to differentiate

Of course, as Hiller states, updating an aircraft interior isn’t just about saving costs. There are many who would argue that, faced with an ever savvier and more demanding passenger, airlines can’t afford not to take advantage of the whole raft of interior innovations now being launched, such as lighting, space-saving lie-flat seating, and more unobtrusive electronics.

Teague’s Ruegamer believes the aircraft interior provides a huge opportunity for airlines to communicate their brand values, with passengers enjoying a more unique, carefully thought-out space.

“Our work with Air Canada is a good example,” she says. “We really focused on asking ourselves what it means to be Air Canada. So when you walk in the cabin there’s a definite feel, which is meant to be very stylish and organic.”

Ruegamer adds that the best way airlines can ensure that their grand visions for interiors come to pass is to involve as many parties in the design process as early as possible. This approach means innovative touches are less likely to fall by the wayside as a result of failed safety tests, challenging lead times, or the sudden realisation that mood lighting is problematic for flight attendants, for instance.

“It’s definitely possible to get around practical challenges, it just needs the different groups involved to be brought together. You need the flight attendants’ representative, it’s also helpful to have maintenance because if they can’t maintain what you’ve designed it’s going to look bad after the first flight, and  marketing is nearly always involved.”

“Be it a brand new configuration concept or merely very small details in look and feel, the key to yield and loyalty enhancing innovation is clear vision, buy-in from top management, good planning, and close cooperation as a team,” agrees Baron.

He adds that, with cabin interior design an incredibly complex process typically involving not just an airline and airframe original equipment manufacturer, but multiple part manufacturers and a design consultant, a lot of attention needs to be paid to ensuring this is a dynamic and well resourced sector.

“Cabin interior programs involve players from all over the world, so for the sake of the entire industry, it needs to be a well coordinated, global initiative,” Baron says. “The big picture is that corporations, educational institutions, and governments need to come together and promote aviation-related engineering as a career, with resources in place to support advanced education, internships, training programs, and job placement.”

“More and more airlines have realized that meaningful differentiation in interior design is critically important in forging a lasting, positive impression,” he says. “Roughly 90% of the customer’s time with an airline brand is spent inside the cabin.”