Grand Designs

How important is aircraft interior design in the fight for customers?
Can interior design make a customer more likely to use your airline?
Can interior design make a customer more likely to use your airline?
The use of lightweight materials to reduce fuel consumption is a key trend in aircraft interior design.
The use of lightweight materials to reduce fuel consumption is a key trend in aircraft interior design.
Emirates says the interior look and feel of its planes constitutes an important part of its service offering.
Emirates says the interior look and feel of its planes constitutes an important part of its service offering.

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Ask any passenger for a first impression of an airplane interior and you are unlikely to receive many mind-blowing descriptions. With garish colour schemes and hard-wearing, resistant materials designed to minimise wear and tear, economy flying is often perceived as, at best, a dreary visual experience.

Unlike its luxurious neighbours on the private aviation runways, passenger carriers can be accused, understandably, of having downplayed the importance of interior design in favour of lower flight costs and enhanced route availability.

Where interior improvements are made, these have tended towards technological advancements such as improving inflight entertainment systems or telecommunications coverage rather than sprucing up the seat covers.

But with so many new aircraft orders and deliveries in the pipeline, the Middle East’s carriers have been turning to novel and improved interior design methods to boost up the quality of their cabins in a way that is both aesthetically pleasing and cost-effective.

Some of the region’s airlines have been undergoing a quiet period of transition, hoping to emerge out of the aviation chrysalis in bright and shiny interior design form.

Gulf Air is a classic example, with the Bahrain-based carrier putting the upgrading of its aircraft interior as a firm priority.

“At present every single cabin is being upgraded to ensure Gulf Air is at the forefront,” says John Tighe, manager for aircraft interior design at the airline.

“Great importance is placed on the onboard experience; and we believe cabin features contribute and compliment the service provided throughout the travel process.”

Earlier this year, the carrier launched its premium experience ‘Falcon Gold’, where the entire cabin interior was completely refurbished to create a “comfortable and consistent” feel – including the upcoming introduction of a new state-of-the-art flat bed for long haul flights.

Increasingly, such refurbishment programmes have shifted away from being the sole remit of the exclusive first and business classes and many airlines have quickly cottoned on to the benefits of having aesthetically pleasing economy cabins as well.

Gulf Air, for example, has built its A320 fleet with built-in individual in-flight entertainment and promises more to follow. “Our future includes a significant emphasis on delivering great aircraft product and rolling out more enhancements and added value to the service,” promises Tighe.

Gulf Air is not alone in its quest for added value through interior design. With a shiny new Airbus A330 fleet at its disposal, Oman Air has been in the privileged position of being able to start as it means to go on with interiors which promise to ‘set a new standard over all classes’.

“The launch of Oman Air’s new A330 fleet gave us the opportunity to completely rethink our aircraft interiors,” emphasises Abdulaziz Al Raisi, chief officer for management affairs at the airline.

“We are focusing on delivering the highest quality in everything we do, expressing traditional Omani hospitality and increasing international awareness of Oman’s culture and enterprising spirit.”

With a 34-inch pitch and a slim-line design that adds even more legroom, Oman Air ambitions have been to raise the bar by offering a premium economy experience at economy prices.

“We took the same approach with our business class cabin, which still gets mistaken for first class,” boasts Al Raisi. “The business class cabin has a luxurious open feel to it, whilst ensuring that each customer can protect their privacy if they want to.”

With the continuing increase in passenger numbers since the new cabin has been introduced, Oman Air is confident that its interiors clearly do matter when it comes to passenger choice. But in the wider market struggle for passenger loyalty, to what extent does seat colour or cabin lighting ambience really matter?

Tighe, like others, believes that even seemingly minor factors such as aircraft interior do indeed make a difference in passenger choice in a market where flight costs and routes are leveling out.

“Frequent flyers become quite discerning, even if it is subconsciously, over time. Sometimes, small subtle design touches can single out an airline as it concentrates on the product and the overall user experience,” he argues.

In more recent times, the whole face of aircraft interiors has undergone a serious make-under. Opting for simpler designs, today’s airlines are preferring cleaner, crisper interiors – emphasising comfort, convenience and ease of use.

“Previously, more was better with extra features, more switches and adjustability - all of which may look elaborate and impressive but in actuality were quite problematic,” recalls Tighe.

“More options meant more weight on the aircraft and a higher probability of glitches leading to frequent maintenance, all of which are not in the best interest of both passenger nor airline.”

With the buzz word of the aviation industry licking its post-recession wounds being ‘improving efficiencies’, not surprisingly the focus of aircraft interiors has also moved towards the use of lighter weight materials and components for cabin seating.

This year, SABIC Innovative Plastics announced five new materials to help reduce the weight of aircraft interiors. The benefits of these special new high-end products appear endless – reducing weight by up to 50 percent, meeting stringent flame-smoke-toxicity (FST) regulations, reducing overall system costs and enhancing the cabin both aesthetically and in terms of safety and comfort.

It is little wonder that lightweight interiors are fast becoming the new super-heroes in the aircraft interiors world.

Swiss based TISCA TIARA group has been selling cabin weight reduction solutions to the industry for years.

Most recently, the company is promoting its new lightweight carpet - a staggeringly 25% lighter alternative to standard aircraft carpets.

“Weight is important because it translates directly into kerosene spendings. Next to costs savings, less kerosene consumption also means reducing the carbon footprint and helping operators to become greener airlines,” says Matthias Tischhauser, division manager for mobility textiles at TISCA TIARA.

An aircraft can, on average, burn around 0.03kg of fuel for each kilogram carried on board per hour – adding thousands of tons of fuel per flight. The mathematics behind the use of lighter weight materials become self-explanatory.

“This new kind of carpet is characterised by a different construction than standard aircraft carpets, offering exciting possibilities to airlines,” Tischhauser enthuses. He promises to provide any design, colour and width desired by the airline, and already has a long list of the region’s leading airlines keen to take on this promising interiors trend.

Other innovative aircraft interiors have not necessarily met with such enthusiasm. Earlier this year, the US-based Aircraft Interiors Expo at the Long Beach Convention Centre controversially showcased the Skyrider seat.

This is best described as resembling a padded saddle, which allows airlines to fit 40% more travellers per flight - but with only a meager 23 inches of legroom to spare, a huge seven inches less than usual.

Whilst the seat has neither Federal Aviation Administration approval nor orders from any major airline, many critics have put it down as being rather an extreme measure which most carriers may never consider.

It appears that at the end of the day, common sense and the comfort of the passengers prevail when it comes to aircraft interiors. “Technical innovations, such as the use of lightweight materials and ground-breaking engineering solutions, are always of great interest to airlines and interior designers, but much of this goes unseen by the passenger,” points out Oman Air’s Al Raisi.

What passengers do see, of course, is the décor and quality of the interior of cabin furnishings, and it is this initial impression which can influence their perception of the whole travel experience – whether it be in a first class cabin or on a Low Cost Carrier (LCC).

Earlier this year, the United Arab Emirates based LCC, Air Arabia, signed a seven-year deal with Botany Weaving for seat fabric, curtains and carpeting to supply its latest order of 44 aircraft.

“We have worked closely with Botany Weaving and came up with best quality of fabric available with a customised colour to give the comfort and ambience needed onboard our flights. In fact, we have received the first aircraft out of the 44 we ordered and we are very pleased with the interiors,” say AK Nizar, head of commercial at Air Arabia.

The airline has always been about value for money, and the very ethos of the low-cost carrier has been to focus on the core value needed in air travel whilst leaving customers with the choice to add on services as necessary.

Nevertheless, as Nizar is quick to point out, Air Arabia boasts one of the best leg room space available in the market, with ‘innovative seats’ that promise passengers comfort during the flight.

“Comfort onboard any flight is very important,” he emphasises. “The focus is always about careful choosing of seats and the seat pitch. In fact, the economy cabin of LCCs provides 32 inches of leg room, which is higher compared to economy cabins of traditional carriers.”

Sharing airspace with one of the giants’ in the airline industry, Emirates, it is not surprising that the low cost airline is keen to ensure its aircraft interiors do not get left behind.

And when it comes to investments, Emirates’ has a formidable reputation for not holding back, and its aircraft interiors budget is no exception.

In 2007, Emirates invested a whopping US $600 million in its inflight products and services, including flat beds with in-seat massage, dine-on-demand room service, in-suite personal mini bar and private sliding doors. In total, 51 new Boeing 777s will include the new interiors, and an unspecified number of existing aircraft will undergo retrofits.

“The interior aesthetics of our aircraft are an important part of our service offering. A huge amount has been invested across the years in ensuring all our fleet meets our customers’ high standards,” says Iain Lachlan, divisional senior vice president for Emirates Engineering.

The carrier has an ongoing refurbishment plan for its existing fleet including the full upgrade of interiors on 33 Boeing 777 aircraft. To date, eleven have already been completed, with the remainder due to be finished by January 2013.

Over the years, Emirates has invested an increasingly significant amount of money on its interiors, developing the cabin interiors to meet each aircraft’ specific requirements and loves its special touches.

“Customers are inundated with choice when travelling and an important part of their purchasing decision is value for money,” justifies Lachlan matter-of-factly. “Passengers want to travel in comfort and at Emirates we take great pride in our high quality service and onboard innovations.”

With some of the region’s most successful airlines placing value and investment into their aircraft interiors, taking a flight promises to be a much more comfortable and attractive experience in the near future.

For the passenger, and indeed for any sensible airline, interior design is not only about implementing a certain look or saving fuel money, but more closely related to making the experience of sitting in a confined space for a long time an acceptable one – and a memorable one for the right reasons.

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