A “perfect storm” of forthcoming new airplanes, rapid advancements in cabin-related technologies, and increased passenger expectations for comfort and customization is driving a wave of investments in commercial aircraft cabins. Today you can throw a dart at a list of airlines and hit one either in the process of updating its cabins or just finished with a major interior renovation.
High on today’s list of improvements are brand-name designs in premium classes, lie-flat beds in business class and the addition of a premium economy class on long-haul services. These changes are adding up to an elevation in the quality of passenger experience airlines vie for customer loyalty with luxury and space.
Wayne Plucker, aerospace and defense director at Frost & Sullivan, projects the value of the current interiors market to be about $6.7 billion, growing to $7.6 billion in 2020. He cautions that those numbers are dependent on aircraft production. “With all of the programs updating or new at that point, actual production of aircraft could be guesswork,” Plucker says. “That will affect the interiors market. I am inclined to think that the number will be slightly above that, but any program certification problems or hiccups in production starts, and the number could be noticeably lower.”
Boeing’s 2014 Commercial Market Outlook forecasts demand for 36,770 new airplanes between now and 2033. Of those, it projects 15,500 (42% of new deliveries) will replace older, less efficient airplanes, while the remaining 21,270 will be used for fleet growth. With so many new airplanes—that have brand-new cabins—coming online, the interiors market is in part being driven by airlines seeking to bring current fleets to the standards of forthcoming planes, which will feature the latest cabin-lighting technology, seat design and inflight entertainment (IFE), along with larger overhead bins and an overall feel of being sleek and modern.
“There is a desire to mirror the new aircraft,” says Plucker. “The older ones really look older after seeing the newer ones.”
Air Canada, for instance, announced in May that the interiors on its Boeing 787s, 37 of which it will receive by the end of 2019, will become its new international standard. Ben Smith, executive vice president and chief commercial officer, says the airline plans to begin conversion in late 2015 of 12 Boeing 777-300ERs and six 777-200LRs “to provide our customers a consistent product with the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.”
Air Canada’s 777 conversion will introduce a premium economy class and an international business-class cabin refurbished to the 787 standards, including 180-deg. lie-flat seats. All seats will include enhanced-definition touchscreens, power outlets and USB ports. The 777-300s will gain 51 seats and the 777-200s 30. Smith says the reconfiguration project is planned for completion in the second half of 2016 and expected to cost about $300 million, which the carrier anticipates earning back in less than three years.
Finnair, the European launch customer for the Airbus A350, in August announced completion of the cabin design for its new long-haul product. Finnair worked with Helsinki design firm DSign Vertti Kivi & Co. to create the new interiors. Business class features Zodiac Cirrus III seats that convert to fully flat beds, economy class will include Zodiac Z300 slim-line seats with a 31-in. seat pitch, and premium economy will comprise 43 “Economy Comfort” seats with more comfortable headrests, high-quality headphones, a personal amenity kit and another 4 in. of legroom. Every A350 will include large panoramic-view windows, Wi-Fi and ambient LED lighting.
To match this standard, Finnair has been retrofitting its existing long-haul fleet. With the exception of three aircraft that will be retired as each new A350 joins operations, the carrier has added fully flat seats in business class and is putting in “Economy Comfort” seating in premium economy to mirror the A350 arrangement. When the retrofits are complete, Finnair’s A330s, A340s and A350s will “be more or less aligned,” says a spokesman. Finnair will begin operating its first A350s in the second half of 2015. It has 11 firm orders and eight options for the aircraft, which it says will drive expansion plans.
Finnair is not alone in seeking to create parity among interiors of new and current aircraft. “Many airlines are taking the decision to retrofit their existing fleets to create harmony with the interiors on the new aircraft being added to their fleets,” observes Timco Aviation Services’ vice president of marketing and business development, Leonard Kazmerski. He says the greatest financial investments are in the latest IFE systems—although he notes a shift in growth toward installation of wireless systems—and improved quality at the front of the cabin. Airlines flying long-haul, he says, “are investing in more elaborate premium-economy and business-class seating products. These airlines are seeking to create more of a classic ‘business-class’ experience in the premium-economy cabin with amenities including IFE, maximized living space and multiple stowage compartments for passenger items.”
Frost & Sullivan’s Plucker says more than half of the world’s airlines have tested the concept of a premium-economy class and “only a few” have dropped it after testing. “That suggests that it works economically for them. From a [return-on-investment] perspective, it is a winner for most airlines,” he says. “At this point, there are a lot of airlines in transition. They are reequipping at major maintenance cycles but generally trying to complete fleets of one type at a time, since that eliminates the equipment change issues when an aircraft develops a problem.”
Today Plucker says most mainline U.S. and European airlines offer some form of premium economy. Lufthansa unveiled plans for its new premium-economy class in May. Installation of the new travel class, the first in 35 years for Lufthansa, is set to begin this fall and finish in the summer of 2015. Lufthansa’s Boeing 747-8s will be the first to fly with the new class, starting in November.
Jens Bischof, the Lufthansa board member in charge of sales, product and marketing, says the introduction of a new fully flat business-class seat in 2012 created a wider gap between economy and business class, making room for premium economy. The centerpiece of the new class is the seats, which are up to 3 cm (1.2 in.) wider than normal economy-class seats and include adjustable headrests. A center console between the seats with wide armrests for each passenger will add about 10 cm more room at the sides. Seat pitch is 38 in. The seats were designed in partnership with Müller/Romca Industrial Design in Kiel, Germany, and produced by seat manufacturer ZIM Flugsitz.
Lufthansa’s new premium economy, a separate compartment between the business and economy cabins, will contain 21-52 seats, depending on the aircraft type. In all, 3,600 seats will be installed on 106 long-haul aircraft, enabling the airline to carry more than 1.5 million passengers per year in the new class. “The seats offer up to 50% more room than economy class and will position us in a premium segment within the international competitive environment,” Bischof said at the roll-out.
The German airline is simultaneously refitting its long-haul fleet with a new business class, which also will be complete by next summer. It is installing 7,000 fully flat seats on the 106 aircraft as part of its quest to become a “five-star” airline.
HIGH END REACHES HIGHER
In addition to fully flat beds in business class, global carriers are striving to reach new heights of luxury at the front of the cabin. Many airlines are teaming with high-end brands to create a “designer” interior where no detail is too small for scrutiny. For instance, Singapore Airlines (SIA) worked with BMW Group Designworks-USA to create new cabin products for first-class passengers on its Boeing 777-300ERs as part of a larger improvement initiative in all classes of the aircraft.
SIA calls the new first-class seat with a fixed-back shell design and curved side panels a “personal sanctuary.” Following “extensive research” on how best to increase seat comfort, the product includes an ergonomically sculpted cushion, improved adjustable headrest, padded headboard and an additional mattress layer, the airline says. SIA and the design group also conducted research with lighting experts to develop a stylish reading light that casts the optimal light color, intensity and adjustable brightness for reading and working. Additional ambient lighting accentuates the seat design and serves as a night light in a dimmed cabin. Panasonic charging ports for Apple products and USB ports are located within a leather-lined stowage compartment by the side of the seat.
The new products rolled out on eight 777-300ERs SIA had scheduled for delivery beginning in September 2013 and are planned for inclusion on the Airbus A350s it has on order. In May, SIA announced it would extend the upgrades to its 19 existing 777-300ERs—installation work is expected to begin early next year and finish by September 2016.
Similarly to SIA, Etihad Airways has introduced in its first-class seats, first-class suite interiors and business-class cabins handmade leatherwork and upholstery from Poltrona Frau, seat designer for automakers such as Ferrari and Maserati.
And KLM Royal Dutch Airlines last year teamed with industrial designer Hella Jongerius to create a new atmosphere, furnishings and style in its business-class cabin with the guiding principle of customer comfort and privacy. The airline added the fully flat Diamond Seat by B/E Aerospace and, to accommodate the expanded room it required, reduced the total number of seats in its World Business Class to 35 from 42 on its 22 Boeing 747-400s. Other upgrades include new carpeting, panel decorations, curtains, lighting, blankets, cushions and upholstery. KLM finished redecorating its 747 fleet in April and recently began upgrading its 15 Boeing 777-200s with the same improvements.
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