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Airline Cabin Mods Deliver For Passengers

From better inflight entertainment to consistently branded cabins, interior modifications focus on the passenger experience.

With a new focus on a more positive passenger experience, airlines are embarking on ambitious cabin-modification projects.

“There is strong demand for cabin upgrades to incorporate the newest seating in business class as well as space-saving, slim economy seats and new lighting and carpets,” says Richard Brown, an ICF International principal based in London.  He also points to the growing number of airlines offering a premium economy product.

“Singapore Airlines recently followed the move by Lufthansa to add a dedicated premium economy cabin after resisting it for many years,” says Brown, who also notes that American Airlines has just announced a premium economy service for international flights.

“In the U.S.,” he explains, “airlines have been slow to understand the revenue potential of a differentiated premium economy cabin with up to 38-in. seat pitch and wider seats, compared to giving away increased legroom using standard coach seats to elite flyers, or at a surcharge to their nonelite customers.” 

Brown reports that in some cases, cabin modifications are being spurred by entry into service of new aircraft such as the Boeing 787, Airbus A350 and Airbus A380. A case in point, American plans to introduce its premium economy initially with delivery of its new 787-9s in late 2016 but extend it to all its currently operated Boeing 777s and 787s, and Airbus A330s and new A350s.

“The aim is to better standardize cabin appearance and align with corporate branding,” Brown says. “In that regard, business travelers complain if they change aircraft at a hub and move from a lie-flat seat to an angled product. That doesn’t help brand consistency.”

According to Victor Ho, vice president commercial airframe services at Hong Kong Aircraft Engineering Co., “competitive reasons” are largely behind cabin reconfiguration and upgrade decisions. “Specifically, the focus is on the passenger experience.”

Among the trends Ho observes are requests for inflight entertainment (IFE) upgrades incorporating Wi-Fi, along with a desire to put more seats in coach. A specialist in widebody transport maintenance, the company is also seeing orders for premium economy cabins to partially or totally replace business class.

“The airlines are also requesting more of the new, lighter-weight seats,” says Ho. “But while weight is a factor in choosing seats, it’s not the key factor. The airlines want to save weight, but not at the expense of passenger comfort.”

Lukas Bucher, head of aircraft modification/international at Lufthansa Technik in Germany, says requests for modifications related to connectivity are increasing, especially from narrowbody aircraft operators in Europe. “This is due to newly available passenger connectivity solutions such as our [satellite-based] Lufthansa/Deutsche Telekom/Inmarsat [IFE] product,” he says. “Other requests pertain more to revenue increase measures, which sometimes lead to additional weight savings.”

Bucher adds that product differentiation among airlines is also playing a role in the interiors modification market. “Competition, catch-up activities and new technologies are driving demand,” he says.

Airline representatives have validated the interior modification market trends noted by MROs. Among the examples, Air New Zealand is engaged in a multiple fleet cabin-upgrade project at its in-house maintenance facilities as well as at outside MROs.

“We are partway through a $1 million program to refurbish the interior of our 50-seat Bombardier Q300 turboprop fleet, which operate our regional services,” says Kerry Reeves, Air New Zealand’s head of aircraft programs. Slated for completion in early 2016, the project will involve 23 aircraft and include installing new leather seat covers, new carpeting, and other trim and finish items.

“This investment will enhance the inflight customer experience and ensure product consistency across our regional fleets,” says Reeves, who points out that the carrier also recently completed an 18-month program to refurbish its fleet of eight 777-200s. “This program,” he says, “has enabled us to align our inflight product on the 777-200 with our 787-9 Dreamliner fleet and has allowed us to offer our customers a more consistent inflight experience when traveling on long-haul services.”

He adds that another project, focused on the carrier’s 777 fleet, involves installation of the same IFE system introduced last year on the 787-9s. “The system features an innovative, app-based design, similar to what is incorporated in mobile devices,” Reeves says. “We have also recently commenced an upgrade of the inflight entertainment system on our [Airbus] A320 fleet so that we can offer customers traveling on short-haul routes the same experience as they currently enjoy on the 787-9 and 777 aircraft.” Air New Zealand expects to finish this IFE upgrade by April.

Reeves says much of the modification work is based on customer preferences, which focus on seating, comfort, space, the IFE system and, interestingly enough, the general age and aesthetics of the interior fit-out. “Customers, we have found, actually do pick up on contemporary design cues such as mood lighting,” he explains. “There is good evidence that smart seat design has a positive impact on customers.”

A neighboring carrier, Qantas Airways, is also investing heavily in cabin reconfiguration for its A330-300 and  Boeing 737-800 fleets, according to Phil Capps, the Australian airline’s head of customer product and service development.

“The refurbishment of our fleet of 28 A330-300s, flying on our domestic and international network, will be completed by the end of 2016,” says Capps, who notes that so far half of the carrier’s A330 fleet has been refurbished, with business class the target market. “The new Business Suite will provide every business-class passenger with fully flat beds and direct aisle access,” he says.

For Qantas’s 67 737-800s operating on the airline’s domestic network, new seat covers will be installed in the economy section, along with the introduction of Q-Streaming, which allows passengers to watch what Capps terms “a plethora” of movies, TV shows and documentaries on their own personal devices.

The interior-modification work, according to Capps, is being conducted at the airline’s engineering facilities in Brisbane and Sydney. He adds that Qantas already has completed an interior upgrade on its Boeing 747-400s to match those on its A380s.

“We are always looking at different ways to improve the customer experience onboard, particularly because we operate very long sectors on our international network,” he says. 

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