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Shifting class boundaries

Described as one of the top 50 design teams in the world, PearsonLloyd has taken its traditional expertise in furniture and carried it over to aviation, with startlingly original results. Tom Pleasant reports

As last issue’s feature on premium economy seats revealed (see Aircraft Cabin Management, April 2013), aviation is seeing a gradual increase in quality across cabin classes. What were once elements of prestige and comfort solely reserved for first class can now increasingly be found in business class, and, in turn, some of the features found in business class are now in premium economy – a booming product in itself.


The reasons are many, but one of the most significant is the increasing demands and expectations of passengers. Another is the more recent product vacuum created by a decreasing interest in the first-class product (this is true at least in the western market).


The decision to increase the prominence of business class at the expense of first class was clearly demonstrated last year when Lufthansa revealed a cabin design for its new 747-8 fleet: 100 premium seats of which only eight were first class (half the usual amount), the rest having been removed to allow the business class seats to all recline to true horizontal beds, a luxury based on a steadily increasing interest for business class among passengers.


Luke Pearson, a partner at the PearsonLloyd design firm in London, which was brought in to create Lufthansa’s new cabin and seats, says: “Lufthansa is a high-density carrier and business class is its beating heart. We had to maximise the scarce [cabin space] without making something so heavy it would be a disaster, not just financially but environmentally.”


The final design has been widely praised: a two-seat shell with a panel between the seats, which themselves measure 1.98 metres (or 78 inches) long when fully flat, and which are slightly angled towards each other at the feet, thereby giving more space at the shoulders. Neatly, this also gives more space in the cabin. Also notable was the studio’s success at persuading Lufthansa to abandon its trademark bold yellow and blue colouring for muted browns and greys, creating a considerably more reserved and calming environment for the cabin and for sleeping.


Pearson – co-founder of the studio along with Tom Lloyd – says Lufthansa’s high standards were a challenge, but ultimately lead to a better design. “Lufthansa is one of those rare organisations that is very sophisticated with itself. [Its] history is strong and [it has] a strong brand that is fed through the organisation at every level by an equally strong internal process to make sure they are asking the right questions. That made the whole tender and design process uniquely thorough. [The airline needs] to be though, because [it has] a huge fleet and brand continuity across it is so important. [Lufthansa] really stretched us, but I feel a good designer is only able to do their best work with an equally good, but also strong, client.


“That being said, from the outset, the actual [design requirements] were relatively loose. We soon realised that the only solution was to go fully flat, and to do that the V seat was the only way. Luckily for us, Lufthansa had already been looking at a V configuration to maximise real estate.”


After work on the initial concepts, B/E Aerospace was brought onto the project as the engineering partner. “B/E was very supportive,” says Pearson, “and took on the challenge of looking at what we had done in the development phase to solve any problems; to try and turn our concept into a platform we could work with. That’s when the project started in earnest. We had daily phone calls with B/E and Lufthansa and everything was done to exacting detail. For example, we worked on the tray tables for weeks, but then that was the same [for] every part of the seat.


“A lot of seat platforms are existing platforms that have been tweaked, modified and restructured. For Lufthansa’s seat, everything had to be designed from scratch and then had to be validated. It was a three-way dialogue with Lufthansa’s technical [department] advising us on any implications for them, and Lufthansa’s product [department] advising us on the service-issue impacts to the customer and the crew. That was every day and went on for four years!”


Making sacrifices

One of the interesting decisions Lufthansa made was to insist on a ‘sacrificial shell’ for the twin seats. This allows the shell to be swapped for a new one when it develops too many scratches. While this ensures the interior does not look too tired too quickly, and promotes the feeling of quality within a premium product, it makes the design complex. The seats can also be reconfigured quickly so that rows of business can be swapped out for economy if the particular route justifies it. That again meant flexibility for Lufthansa, but added complications to the design, notably tough weight constraints – have you ever tried to lift one of those things?


Beyond the work on Lufthansa’s business class, and previous work on Virgin Atlantic’s first class, Pearson is keen to stress the importance of the ‘design corridor’ of a passenger’s journey, something the larger aircraft manufacturers have also started to take note of.


“Most brands start out as being very product orientated, but that changed in the 1980s, especially in aviation. Now it is more service orientated; more of an experience. You need to understand the travellers’, but especially the business travellers’, entire experience from checking in – whether at home or the airport – to the lounge and beyond and link the design throughout.” >>

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