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Our time is now

Airlines are realising that cabins remain a largely untapped area in which to differentiate themselves. Tom Pleasant speaks with industry experts about what trends we can expect to see in cabin management and design this year and into the future

Ask most passengers what they thought of their flight and they will largely be oblivious to most of the hard work and consideration that goes into the cabin, service and aircraft, and will most likely simply complain about seat width and pitch.


However, many airlines are starting to see the cabin as their one point of differentiation from their competitors. “It’s getting harder and harder,” says Eric Kaduce, Deputy Chief Engineer of New Airplane Studies at Boeing Commercial Airplanes. “You used to be able to differentiate with schedule, routes and loyalty, but it’s such a competitive environment that those are now very similar and cabin is the primary difference.”


“Virtually everyone has the same price going from point to point,” says Vern Alg, former Director and interiors specialist at Continental. “There’s a growing awareness that the cabin is more important. Some airlines, those that are prominent such as the Asian carriers, understand that and are very conscious of their cabins. Others don’t.”


Part of this is that passengers are rarely given the opportunity to know ahead of time which aircraft they will be flying on, let alone choose. Even if they did, the public is, as Kaduce admits, “fairly uneducated” when it comes to aircraft types.


Even ‘under the hood’ it is increasingly difficult to introduce new technological innovations, game changers that even an uneducated public would notice; the Concordes and A380s.


“Long term, it’s getting harder to increase efficiency of the aircraft,” Kaduce explains. “We’re approaching ‘aircraft perfection’, where there’s fewer low-hanging fruit to how can you improve the product. The cabin is the only area with significant potential.”


Shashank Nigam, CEO of SimpliFlying, a consultancy firm that advises airlines and airports on optimising business-driven customer engagement, agrees: “Airlines are looking to differentiate themselves by the type of travel experience provided – and cabin interiors can be a huge part of it. Virgin America re-invented domestic travel in the US with their über-chic cabins. They remain unmatched after eight years in operation. Qatar Airways has invested a lot to set their 787 cabin apart from others and Singapore Airlines is known to re-do their cabins every five to seven years. These are efforts to build sustainable competitive advantage.


“The ‘connected traveller’ of today [one used to being connected by mobile device to the internet and social media] likes to share every moment of their travel journey. Airlines that impress can benefit greatly from positive word-of-mouth by the relevant audience at the most relevant times – this is important, especially in a competitive industry.”


That is not only limited to first and business class passengers, but also economy class, as can be seen with the rise in popularity of and products for premium economy. Nigam cites Air New Zealand’s Skycouch as one innovation that he would like to see more airlines consider. Skycouch, introduced on the Air New Zealand’s new 777, allows passengers to buy three seats at a discount, with armrests that can fold down to form one large seat.


Alg sees this as a natural evolution that will continue as greater awareness of the benefits of design and new technological developments allow for more improvements.


“To get more people on an airplane to make it profitable means limiting leg room and pitch,” he says. “But the design of seats is so much more comfortable than 10, and definitely 20, years ago, even though they have less pitch! There’s more attention to touch, seats and structural design. As IFE has come into play a lot of electronic equipment under the seat has interfered with baggage and comfort. As tech evolves, these will get smaller and smaller and so we’ll see more leg room given back to the customers.”


Of course, there are also very good reasons why wise airlines are being more considerate of economy passengers. Passenger numbers are, despite a drop during the global recession, rising in the long term. That means more people being able to fly, and they are developing a good idea of what they consider acceptable on a flight. Nigam’s ‘connected traveller’ not only has the power to spread the good word of an airline, but also the bad. Witness the rising number of blogs by passengers that lift the lid on their flight experiences, in all their horrifying glory. 


“There is real money in the front cabins, but if you don’t fill up the back cabin you’ll lose money,” says Alg. “All classes are important otherwise it would all be first or business. Yes, [people in economy are] cost-conscious, but they’re still people who deserve respect. They also have connections and they’re very vocal,” he warns. >>

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