AIRCRAFT CABIN AND SEATING INNOVATION: SOLVING THE COST AND PAX EXPERIENCE EQUATION
By CRISTIAN TANGEMANN
SUMMARY: With the solid and continuous growth in demand for lift, airlines are driven to achieving brand loyalty through competitive cabin products that offer a true on-board experience in which seats are the wild card. How? Lighter materials, perceived quality and ingenious designs are the industry’s best bet. But further, bridging the widening skill gap between demand and supply seems the key to unlock the answer to the equation.
Since 2017, air passenger traffic has grown worldwide at a rate of over 7%, while – according to Markets & Markets- the aircraft cabin interiors is projected to grow from USD 27.0 billion to USD 40.2 billion in 2018-2025, at a CAGR of 5.87%. The effect is predictable: increase in the number of new aircraft orders and cabin retrofitting works. But airlines are ina race to deliver passengers comfort and brand loyalty at lower costs. The question is, how?
Some of the biggest US carriers have resorted to –apparently– the outrageous. In mid-April, Delta Airlines announced that they would reduce seat recline in 62 of their A320s whose current layout racks up 147 seats. As reported by Skift, seats in economy class –including extra-legroom seats– will go from a two-inch to a four-inch reclination, whereas in first class, seats will go from more than five inches to approximately three and a half.
“This is not a push to add seats to the cabin or find a way to reduce the pitch of the seats,” says Ekrem Dimbiloglu, Director of Onboard Product and Customer Experience. “It’s about ensuring an optimal experience.” After monitoring passenger response, the airline, he says, “Will maybe stay at
these 2 inches or maybe we will find a happy medium between 2 and 4.”
On the vendors side, at the latest Crystal Cabin Awards in Hamburg, Peacock Suites by Paperclip Design won The Visionary Concepts category thanks to their futuristic model that promises a variable configuration of First Class cabins as required –from family compartments with a bunk bed to a three-room luxury suite, as reported by Future Travel Experience.
So, driven by customized passenger experience, brand loyalty and lower costs, airlines are in the lookout for solutions that are able to offer the sweet spot in the equation.
The Cabin-Seating Game
As reported by the Global Commercial Aircraft Cabin Interior Market Study – 2019 to 2024, with the enhancement of passenger experience on sight, airlines are installing new and advanced cabin interior systems like mood lighting, in-flight live streaming, and new fiber seats. The latter are embedded with smart sensors to manually control seat pressure, tension, temperature, and movement by the use of an app on the phone, among others.
But for Delta, it is also more than seat pitch tweaks and in-flight entertainment. The carrier has gained a well deserved reputation for offering services like IFE as an integral part of the customized travel experience. The airline’s Delta Flight Products –a specialized unit within the company–is
delivering seatback wireless IFE to aircrafts like Airbus A330-900neo and A321neo, and when retrofitting the system to its Boeing 767-400s. The solution sports Hitachi tablet displays and is fully Delta-sourced. Loren Bolstridge, Chief System Architect at Delta and speaker at IQPC Aircraft Seating USA Conference, believes that IFE is “An internal part to enhance airline brand identity”.
Similarly, Alaska Airlines, currently the most satisfying US carrier according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index Travel Report 2018 – 2019, owes part of such success down to offering their passengers a true experience onboard.
Amber Simonsen, Director of Product Development & Delivery and speaker at IQPC’s Aircraft Seating USA event asserts that, “For us, we want our guests to enjoy the flight. That means investing in a comfortable seating product with thoughtful touches our passengers love like dual power in the seats, six-way adjustable head rests, tablet holders, etc.”
When asked about where is the sweet spot between cost reduction and achieving passenger brand loyalty, she sums it all up like this: “While reducing costs is important, so is a quality product that performs well flight after flight. Our cabins are an important part of how our brand comes to life, and we carefully consider each cabin enhancement to ensure the investment will improve the flight experience in a way that’s worth talking about.”
For Sajumon MP, A/Manager-Line Maintenance at Jet Airways, “A balance is always needed between time, quality and cost. Each of the innovations –especially in the cabin– should directly or indirectly relate to the top line of the organization, at the same time helping to generate the necessary yield.”
“While reducing costs is important, so is a quality product that performs well flight after flight. Our cabins are an important part of how our brand
comes to life.” Amber Simonsen, Alaska Airlines
On the other hand, for Director of Paperclip Design Limited James S.H. Lee, to solve the cost and passenger experience equation airlines must analyze, “Risk factors that impact profitability in transport operations and the importance of flexibility to counter uncertainties.” Likewise, carriers should quantify the value that such flexibility brings to operations and the methodology behind.
A Crystal Cabin Award winner at this year’s edition, Lee will present at IQPC’s Aircraft Seating USA 2019 Conference in Michigan some of their creative design concepts to achieve flexibility and comfort to passengers.
From the passenger perspective there is, however, another key element that contributes to airlines solving the cost vs. customer loyalty issue: Perceived quality. A concept that could be deemed as generic for different industries, it is gradually becoming an ace up the sleeve for the aircraft cabin supply chain to secure passenger brand loyalty whilst skimping on extra costs.
Perceived quality is defined as the ability of a product or a brand to meet customers’ expectations, with little or nothing to do with the actual excellence of the product.
But what is more important is that, as stated by author Somphol Vantamay, “Perceived quality will directly influence purchase decisions and brand loyalty, especially when a buyer is not motivated or able to conduct a detailed analysis.” It can also support a premium price which, in turn, can create a gross margin that can be reinvested in brand equity.
Sajumon asserts that if the increased customer experience does not result in the incremental revenue that is anticipated, then it is clear that the perceived quality of the product is not meeting the customer expectation. “To alleviate this problem, the customer should always be consulted –by means of Market Research–prior to innovating the space that would be mostly used by them.”
Hand in hand with the search for perceived quality, reducing weight is also one of the industry’s greatest drivers.
Airbus, together with a design house from London has developed “The Move” seat concept –specifically with the economy class in mind– which represents a smart leap in passenger comfort and lightweight materials in a segment that has been aching from innovation; it is, “An exploration into how smart textiles can improve passenger comfort in economy class while helping airlines save weight and fuel,” as reported by Business
“The seat sends electrical currents down through the conductive yarn to adjust the firmness of the seat. The seat’s sensors also monitor temperature, tension, pressure, and movement.” They are made from lightweight polyester wood smart textile wrapped around an aluminum frame, while electrical currents running through the smart textile allow passengers to control the firmness and the temperature of the seat. The seat concept is meant to, “Help create an innovative passenger experience for economy class travelers,” says the portal.
The seat also comes with a rotating tray table and an optional in-flight entertainment system. All these solutions seem to stem from future market strategies that OEMs and Airlines are identifying, and to which they are aligning their smart initiatives –cabin classes and configurations, passenger experience and airline operations including ancillary services, and the value added for seating. In this regard, Airbus’ Product and Services Strategy Manager Nicolas Jourdan will reveal at IQPC’s conference how these strategies are being put together, and how the air transport supply chain can grind the best out of the new business opportunities from new seating solutions. And –perhaps– surprisingly, the numerical and monetary benefits of weight reduction are no less than astonishing.
According to Dr. Holger Friehmelt, Head of Institute FH Joaneum Aviation, assuming a small change from conventional upholstery leather with approximately 800g/m² to benchmark leather like Ambalite from Wollsdorf with approx. 600 g/m², in a typical Airbus A320 layout the saving goes up to 46.8 kg of aircraft weight. “A weight savings of 46.8 kg on an A320 operating in a network in, for example, central Europe, yields a fuel savings of approximately 6.8 kg per flight. Add this up per year and results soar up to around 10.3 tons of fuel savings, and over an A320 lifespan to at least 250 tons.”
What airlines expect
In the case of Alaska Airlines, the carrier spends a lot of time listening to their guests about their experiences in the cabin. “When we engage in a seating design effort, we look to seating providers to partner with us, and really lean into both the wish lists of our most frequent flyers and the issues we hear about to influence the design.”
“One of our biggest challenges is how difficult it is to bring cabin enhancements to market. Short of an entirely new seat, it’s a very costly and long process to upgrade existing seats with these enhancements. As an airline, we’re very interested in finding ways to bring these upgrades to life in a cost-effective way,” says Amber Simonsen.
For Sajumon, connected cabin architecture would pave the way for continuous monitoring of the functionality of each of the equipment and alert the maintenance crew about potential failure before the flight lands. “Preventive Maintenance team could, in turn, be prepared with the spares to rectify the anomaly during the limited time and it could continuously monitor the parameters like seat cushion and thickness, and alert the maintenance crew when the wear and tear reaches an alert level.”
But still, there is a further way to go to edge the industry closer to solving the equation: The industry must come forward and collaborate with the institutions, to bridge the widening skill gap between demand and supply.
And this is precisely what is going to be discussed at IQPC’s Aircraft Seating USA 2019 conference in Seattle.