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Predicting the future

Industry experts are dusting off their crystal balls and taking a look at the potential for cabin developments over the next couple of decades. Paul Eden looks ahead
 

Walking into a mainline cabin in 2013, a well-travelled passenger is unlikely to be surprised by the subtle mood lighting, the array of seat-back screens or the personal space and comfort offered at the forward end of the cabin. They may expect to connect their laptop to the aircraft’s wifi network, and they could be disappointed not to be able to send a text message home. Such has been the rate of progress in cabin design over the previous 15 years or so.


But what of the next 15 years? What might our passengers expect from a cabin in 2028? There seems to be some agreement across the industry that fast-paced developments in existing technologies will continue to improve both the passenger experience and operating efficiencies for the airlines, but there is always the possibility of unexpected technological iterations or consumer trends.


Tom Plant, vice president and general manager at B/E Aerospace Seating Products, says: “It’s very difficult to look so far forward. I don’t think we’d have anticipated the movements of the last 15 years, particularly on widebody international aircraft. We’ve gone from no in-flight connectivity or communication to advanced in-flight entertainment (IFE).”


Plant has some interesting viewpoints on future passenger comfort and optimising cabin configurations, however. “I think we may see an age where some cabin comfort items, including seats, retract from the very complex, electrically integrated products that they’ve become. The advances you see in personal devices and streaming content will change the electrical architecture of the aircraft, affording us the opportunity to invest more in passenger comfort. Today there are limitations in terms of seat functionality and the space you can give the passenger, because of the space dedicated to integrating cabin equipment.”


Airlines are moving towards slimline seats in economy class, but these seats must still accommodate a 2 inch-thick video screen in their backs. As Plant explains, slimmer screens, or personal electronic devices (PEDs), might allow even thinner seat backs, freeing up additional passenger space. Many aircraft still fly with older-generation, more bulky IFE systems, while the underseat integration of the electrical boxes needed to support in-seat IFE impinges on legroom even in more modern systems. Future technology could reduce the space dedicated to IFE, helping airlines achieve a better compromise between passenger comfort and entertainment.


Bombardier has worked hard to ensure that its CSeries can offer the full spectrum of IFE and connectivity options, with minimal impact on the cabin. Sam Cherry, Director of Product Strategy at Bombardier Commercial Aircraft, says: “During the early programme phases, the CSeries design team reserved space for IFE and connectivity systems to ensure there would be no impact on cabin stowage or cargo spaces.”

 

Cabin trends
Plant claims that aircraft interiors tend to mirror not only the technologies, but also the financial conditions of the day. “During the economic expansion of the mid-2000s, many long-haul types provided more space to business-class passengers and sometimes in economy too, but now aircraft are becoming more highly dense. I think this trend will continue over the next five years, in response to tougher economic times.”


He notes that airlines have been pushing the possibilities for premium-first and premium-business classes, many installing fully reclining seats, but feels that the end of this trend is approaching. “Some third-tier carriers have installed exotic first-class cabins and are in the process of going to lie-flat products. I think this is an indication that first class is coming under pressure and the top-tier carriers are recognising that the yields from those seats are not what they’d hoped.


“They’re pushing to remove some first-class products and replace them with business-class seats. But you can argue that those business-class cabins still have too many seats, and airplanes could be reconfigured more efficiently. As everyone makes the jump to lie-flat, there may be a push towards a higher end product for the business passenger and possibly a little more space. The elimination of first class and reduction of business class footprint will make more carriers see that premium economy can work for them to a much higher degree than it does today.”


Asked how he sees an enhanced premium economy working in practice, Plant describes a plusher cabin space, seating passengers at a minimum 40 inch pitch. This new configuration would work alongside a reduced business-class offering, while economy seems likely to become as dense as possible, since many of the travellers in economy are buying on price and price alone. Explaining his vision further, he says: “In essence, yesterday’s premium economy might push towards what were considered mechanical business-class seats in the mid-1990s, while business-class products will move closer to what was typical for first class 10 years ago. The highly elite super first-class product may then disappear. There could also be a push towards a higher quality of fit and finish, making first-class products look every bit as good as the interior of an Audi A8 or Mercedes S-Class car, for example, as well as being fully functional.” >>


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