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Boutique with Belgitude

When Brussels Airlines decided to upgrade its fleet with Airbus A330-300s, there was also an opportunity to introduce a completely new cabin throughout the aircraft, with assistance from JPA Design. Ian Harbison reports from the Belgian capital
The history of Brussels Airlines dates back to 2002 when mother company SN Airholding was created by a group of about 40 investors. This followed the collapse of Sabena, the original flag carrier. In 2009, Lufthansa Group acquired an initial 45% stake in SN Airholding and then took over completely in December 2016.
The airline currently serves more than 90 destinations in Europe, 23 in Africa, three in North America, and Tel Aviv, with a fleet of Airbus A330s and A319/320s. As a result of the takeover, it was possible to upgrade the A330 fleet, replacing seven of the 10 aircraft with Lufthansa-owned aircraft as leases expire until 1Q20. A further three aircraft will be added later, with completion scheduled for 2022. Brussels Airlines is immensely proud of being the national airline and sees an important role in promoting all aspects of Belgian culture.
This obviously includes food, wine and beer, and the airline is working with Thierry Theys, whose Nuance restaurant in Duffel holds two Michelin stars; Fiona Morrison, Master of Wines; and Sofie Vanrafelghem, Master Beer Sommelier. In the same way, it draws on other cultural references, such as Art Nouveau, and the architects Victor Horta and Henry van de Velde, and this is reflected in its Business Class lounge at Brussels Airport, The Loft. It also likes to promote the quirky, idiosyncratic nature of Belgians, known as Belgitude.
Two physical examples are the Atomium and the Mannekin Pis, while creative examples include the surrealist painter René Magritte, and Peyo, the cartoonist who designed those little blue creatures, the Smurfs. Both of the latter are represented in special paint schemes on Airbus A320s, along with other liveries called Trident (the national football team), Tomorrowland (a huge Belgian electronic dance music festival, held, onomatopoeically, in Boom) and Rackham (featuring Tintin, by the cartoonist Hergé). As the sixth aircraft will be unveiled shortly, this could be the airline’s own Belgitude showing through. This also showed in the launch of the new cabin.
The airline took over a derelict building in the city centre and converted part of it into a series of experience rooms, each holding examples of the seats in Business, Premium Economy and Economy, as well as a tasting of the food, wine and beer to be served on board. The project started in late 2016, with an RFP being sent to a number of leading design agencies. This called for a design that reflected the ethos of the airline; the spirit of the country and its people; a new Premium Economy Class; and a Business Class cabin with a boutique hotel feel to reflect the passengers’ main demand – sleep.
Another requirement was the use of Thompson Vantage and ZIM magic and NGflexible seats that are used across the Lufthansa Group airlines. In early 2017, the contract was awarded to London-based JPA Design. John Tighe, Design Director, Transport, says it was a very thorough evaluation of who connected best with the brand. For JPA, key attributes were experience of hotel design from another side of the company, airline experience and Frederik Vanden Borre, who had just joined as Product and Transportation Designer, and was Belgian, having trained there before completing his studies in London. The first step was an intense, four-day immersion in the country and its culture, in Brussels and Antwerp, and in the airline and its culture, including discussions with cabin crew. This was led by Head of Cabin Product, Eric Kergoat. 
Business Class has 30 Vantage seats, in a low-density staggered configuration for maximum privacy and with 90% of seats having direct aisle access. However, a closer look at the LOPA shows an unusual mix of 1-2-1 and 2-2-1. There are two types of double seats, aimed at couples and individual travellers, but there are further variations beyond that, bringing in the boutique feel. Kergoat says this provides a wider range of options for passengers than a conventional arrangement, who can stick with their favourite or try something new.
Privacy dividers contain a large fold out table. The height has been carefully determined to allow passengers to converse across the top but only a slight recline of the seat provides privacy. There is a pad covered in Ultraleather on the side, which provides a soft touch point while also absorbing sound. This incorporates the seat number marker, which doubles as a hook for noise cancelling headphones. In the corner, there is a water bottle holder with a red interior, picking up on the airline colour scheme. Tighe says this is a small but important detail, and has to be carefully designed to provide maximum effect with minimal cost.
There is a moveable reading light and an ambient light that can be dimmed – blue LED lighting in various parts of the seats will dim at the same time, and both will switch off when the seat is in bed mode, although this can be overridden. By linking up with an ottoman in the footwell under the seat in front, there is a 2m fully flat bed. This incorporates a pneumatic cushion system from Lantal with adjustable pressure to ensure the right level of firmness for each passenger and a massage function. As well as a lower drawer, there open storage spaces for smaller items in the upper half of the seat.
Zodiac’s RAVE IFE system is available throughout the aircraft, as is a mood lighting scheme with four colour schemes, with an adjustable 15.6in HD screen in Business Class. That architectural influence appears through the use of wooden panels and surfaces. They are actually Kydex with the colour and grain pattern of beechwood injected directly into the material using SEKISUI’s Infused Imaging process. Tighe makes the point that there is honest use of materials. By this, he means that the wood effect is natural. >>

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