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Airplane Cabins: Moving to a Modular Future?

Airbus and Boeing are both working on ways to modernize and modularize future commercial airplane cabin passenger experience. Here, we profile some of their latest research on existing and future cabin design.

Airlines are already getting more innovative with their existing cabin configurations and use of in-flight entertainment and connectivity (IFEC).

At the 2017 Paris Air Forum in June, for example, Air France, through its new T3 Fundraiser program, invested in Startup Company SkyLights, which creates “immersive entertainment” products. Since Aug. 1, the French carrier has been testing the use of SkyLights’ virtual-reality headsets capable of completely immersing passengers in three-dimensional films on flights between Paris-Charles de Gaulle and St. Martin.

Delta Air Lines in April won a Crystal Cabin award at the Aircraft Interiors Expo for its new A350 Polaris concept — one of the first business class cabins to feature sliding doors at every seat.

Still there are improvements to be made, most notably seen in the U.S. by the July court ruling of a federal appeals judge requiring the FAA to review its regulation for the size of airline cabin seats. A current U.S. House of Representatives bill under consideration would also require the agency to set minimum seat sizes on U.S. airline cabins to establish a minimum distance between rows. Airlines and OEMs are aware that despite cabin environments getting smarter and more Wi-Fi friendly, the average cabin experience today needs improvement. Here’s what Airbus and Boeing are doing about that.

Transpose has been able to start establishing a business case for modularity.Photo courtesy of Airbus

Boeing: vCabin and MAX

Boeing’s Commercial Airplanes product development position has a technology demonstrator it calls the vCabin, which features an interior mockup of a cabin with computer chips located near traditional cabin devices that can be manipulated through a smartphone application. Passengers, cabin and crew can control the app. Cabin computer systems on vCabin are also capable of automatically notifying airline maintenance personnel about cabin hardware and software issues so that they can be repaired as soon as the airplane lands.

Tapping an iPhone screen also instantly leads to changes in mood lighting and air conditioning. According to Boeing’s product development team, this interaction with cabin systems is not achieved by using internet-enabled Wi-Fi service. Instead, a smartphone app can directly communicate with embedded computer chips located near designated features.

While Boeing was unable to comment directly on any of the latest testing results or insights about its research with vCabin, several of its cabin experience and differentiation strategists provided insights and current and future cabin design philosophies.

One technological foundation that can help fuel future expanded use of connectivity in cabins that’s already integrated into the Boeing 737 MAX, which entered into commercial service in May, is the use of fiber optics. Optical fibers have helped in significant weight reduction in IFE systems and can be routed anywhere while also being more resistant to electromagnetic and radio frequency interference.

“Being able to offer airlines state-of-the-art passenger connectivity options that are also usable is extremely important to Boeing,” said Nathan Van Rheenen, senior manager of connected systems at Boeing Commercial Airplanes. “In regards to Wi-Fi systems, Boeing’s aircraft are designed with optimal wireless access point placement and cabin interior materials in order to provide the strongest possible Wi-Fi signal to every passenger, and at the maximum available speed based on today’s latest Wi-Fi technology. As a result of that, the airlines are then free to choose what type of media/service to make available for the passengers to access on their own Wi-Fi enabled devices.”

Blake Emery, who serves as Boeing’s director of differentiation strategy, told Avionics that the 737 MAX also features some new designs that respond to Boeing’s research on specific passenger insights. He said these are achieved on the 737 platform using a new lighting feature at the entry, a special lighting system that features a close connection between the architecture and the lighting, and a newly designed sidewall and window reveal.

Emery’s research on passenger reaction to historical cabin designs is that passengers want to feel “connected to the sky.”

“We will be alert to enabling technologies, while at the same time being sensitive to how much connection might be too much,” said Emery. “For example, I don’t think you are ever going to see an all-transparent airplane. Our designs will be very accommodating to future customer business models and what passengers are actually carrying on board. These trends can change quickly, and we want to make sure passengers can find a place for their things, whatever those things happen to be.”

Chua’s team uses the A330 for technical and integration testing, and also to test its future ideas and concepts with real people in real life.Photo courtesy of Airbus

Airbus A3 Transpose

If Airbus A3’s Transpose cabin concept can become a reality, it could transform the concept of the aircraft cabin as it is known today.

A3, the new Silicon Valley branch of Airbus, is bringing a next-generation concept to aircraft cabin reconfiguration and modularity with a clean-sheet rethinking of the aircraft cabin. Sitting in his office looking at the Transpose cabin concept, Jason Chua, project executive for Transpose, explained to Avionics that what the company is looking to do would not necessarily re-design the commercial cabin completely, rather it would borrow from the existing modularity within freighter aircraft and create modules of activity within the cabin.

A3 uses a full-scale mockup of an Airbus A330-200, 150 feet long, 20 feet wide and 15 feet tall, sitting inside of its office in Silicon Valley. Since a freighter aircraft already has a rapidly configurable interior, A3 uses the leverage to reinforce the structure and large loading door on the freighter aircraft to adapt it for passenger use. Safety systems were also installed in a way that is a bit more interchangeable — allowing the team to create three module structures that serve as a platform on which to build passenger experiences. Chua’s team uses the A330 for technical and integration testing, and also to test its future ideas and concepts with real people in real life, such as its second simulated flight with 106 passengers.

Since launching the Transpose project in July 2016, A3 has created eight total cabin modules, including a branded fitness module at San Jose Airport’s Gate 18, simulating the experience of flying in an aircraft cabin with a module that features workout equipment. Over the course of one month, the Transpose team tracked usage of the workout module by 687 passengers, with more than 90% of them stating they would be willing to pay a higher premium to fly on an airplane featuring such a module.

In May, Transpose simulated a four-hour flight on its full-scale A330 in its office with 106 passengers, six cabin crewmembers and seven different experience modules, including a restaurant, workspace, a “zen retreat” quiet area for relaxation, a play space for kids and a sleeping area with full-length beds. Passengers booked itineraries and chose their activities ahead of time for the simulated flight, providing Transpose with real-world feedback from a commercial flight-like experience.

“A lot of this research is around quantifying what is the business value and what is the commercial value of modularity,” said Chua.

Since launching the Transpose project, A3 has created eight total cabin modules.Photo courtesy of Airbus

Working with Bob Dana, a former Virgin America CFO and current partner at Griffin Aviation, Transpose has been able to start establishing a business case for modularity. Analysis of 1.5 million lines of historical data about passenger capacity, premium cabin patterns and airline ticket sales, the flexibility created by Transpose has been determined to be capable of increasing airline margins by 5%. Another EEG study conducted with Nielsen Consumer Neuroscience tested the Transpose offering against an unnamed major U.S. airline at different price points and found that passengers are willing to pay a 35% premium over economy fares. At the time of this interview, Chua was also awaiting results of a Transpose-Harvard Business School behavioral economics study, giving participants the option of spending real money to be part of a Transpose experience. A majority elected to do so, Chua said.

The next goal for Transpose will be to complete a technical review with the Toulouse-based cabin and structural engineering division of Airbus to build a full-scale prototype with Transpose cabin modules to flight test the concept. Chua said it has already received a letter of intent from a maintenance repair and overhaul facility expressing interest in building an Airbus A320 with Transpose’s cabin concept within the next two years.