For economy-class passengers the modern cabin is barely discernible from that of 30 years ago, minus the ashtrays and a few inches of legroom, perhaps.
Big changes, in contrast, are obvious further up the aircraft, where first-class seats have become suites and business recliners have transformed into lie-flat beds.
Yet those trends – of increasing luxury at the front and falling comfort at the back – are nearing exhaustion: private cabins are mostly a branding exercise by those airlines that still offer first class; while human dimensions mean that very few more seats can be crammed into economy.
Moreover, the traditional three-class distinction is blurring: first class is disappearing at many airlines; business-class seats become ever more cocoon-like; and premium economy offers a new option.
“Maybe five to 10 years you could say that premium economy is the new business and business is the new first,” comments Sven Taubert, corporate innovation manager at Lufthansa Technik.
Cabin innovation broadly divides into three categories: utilization of space; weight savings; and use of technology such as lighting and in-flight entertainment.
Discerning where the biggest gains are available depends on ones timeframe.
In the short-term, for instance, new seating layouts offer, at best, marginal improvements. But the cabin of 30 years’ time may deploy seats in a honeycomb configuration, stacked up to the ceiling.
New metal alloys, carbon fibers and manufacturing techniques such as 3D printing are still to be used extensively in the cabin. As such, they do offer potential for lighter equipment although Taubert reckons that savings of more than a few hundred kilos across the entire cabin are unlikely.
This leaves technology as perhaps the most transformative factor in the short term. LED lighting can be altered to suit the time of day, new IFE systems will link to passengers’ personal devices and virtual reality goggles could offer both entertainment and a convincing illusion of spaciousness.
Behind the scenes, meanwhile, the digitization of the cabin will encompass many more embedded sensors to start generating the data needed to correctly influence future design decisions.
To find you more about cabin innovation pick up the June issue of Inside MRO.