The sky’s the limit

Peter Hall settles in for a smooth ride, where he discovers the latest airline product designs from both sides of the Atlantic

If British Airways gets the go-ahead in March, and its fleet of Concordes regains its lofty status in the skies, transatlantic travellers will once again have the option of a very fast, expensive and cramped journey from London to New York. BA has poured millions into modifications to ensure that the tragedy of the crash last summer doesn’t happen again, and additional millions into a refit by Factory Design and Conran & Partners, which it now hopes will lure wary executive travellers back to supersonic flight. But there is little denying the fact that Concorde – noisy, a source of pollution and designed in the 1960s – is an outdated beast.

For Factory, the monumental task was to improve the comfort of the Concorde seat while reducing the weight. They have attempted to do so by introducing the speed mark seat, a one-piece carbon fibre seat with adjustable headrests and moveable footrests. The product group also designed the bathrooms and the galleys. For Conran & Partners (formerly CD Partnership), responsible for the overall interior, it was to create a sense of space and “modern luxury”. This was achieved by eliminating the clutter in favour of a spare, Eamesian interior finished in BA blue. Out went the “quasi-Regency cut glass with everything looking like a suburban reproduction living room,” says Sebastian Conran of Conran & Partners, and in came an interior of “sophisticated elegance” inspired by Formula One cars. But similarities with F1 cars don’t end there: Concorde gets very warm inside as it passes the speed of sound and it is also very cramped. “The first thing that shocks you,” says Factory director Adam White, “is how tiny it is. There’s barely enough headroom to walk down the aisle.”

Concorde is not, however, a rare anachronism, but an industry standard. Almost all of the air transportation industry needs an update, from equipment to infrastructure. As designer Paul Priestman, director of Priestman Goode, argues, “Whatever aeroplane you go on at the moment, the interior has this 1960s-1970s feel to it. The plastic panels, the rounded shapes, the patterned wallpaper and those horrible loos.”

The reason is that the archetype, the Boeing jumbo jet, was designed in the 1960s, and an entire industry was built rather too swiftly around it. Air travel grew exponentially – there were 500 million passenger journeys a year in the mid-1970s, and about 1.5 billion in 1999 – yet following deregulation in 1978, the cost of a ticket plummeted. According to the International Air Transport Association, the average passenger is paying 70 per cent less for a flight than he or she was 20 years ago.

As profit margins decreased, innovation took second place to cost-competitiveness. Two manufacturers, Airbus and Boeing, have come to dominate the scene, while dozens of airlines compete for the passenger dollar. Aircraft are delivered by Airbus and Boeing to the airlines as neutral shells or “tubes”, as they are known in the industry. The placement of windows, baggage storage areas, food preparation areas and bathrooms is already fixed. Designers are only brought in by the airlines at the last stage, to furnish the interior in corporate colours and do as much as possible with the one component assigned to them – the seat. “All the airlines can change is carpets and seating,” says Priestman.

It is hardly surprising, then, that the seat has been the focus of the greatest amount of product design innovation in recent years. Since they couldn’t afford to do much with the rock-bottom priced economy-class seats other than pack as many as possible into the space, airlines in the 1990s focused their efforts on improving the lucrative first class and business class seating. In 1995, BA introduced the first cabin beds for its first class passengers, designed by Design Acumen, which were then aped by Virgin Atlantic, Qantas, Air France and Cathay Pacific. In 1999, BA gave its business class customers a “seat-bed”, a design marvel making a semi-private slumber space out of a seat, developed by Tangerine. Design Acumen last year came up with swivelling seat-beds for American Airlines’ premium class passengers.

The cattle truck approach to economy class has hit a potential stumbling block, however, with the apparition of what the press has dubbed “economy class syndrome”. A number of cases have been reported of deep vein thrombosis crippling and, in at least one case, killing passengers confined to cramped seating on long-haul flights. While the jury is still out on the extent of the problem, various solutions are being offered. Craig Egenes, senior manager at Teague Boeing Operations, which designed the interior of the new 777 aircraft, the 767-400 and 747X for Boeing, believes that press reports on the economy class syndrome are disproportionate to the problem. “Incidents of blood clots are well publicised, but extremely rare,” he says. Egenes argues that passengers should follow medical advice and get up and move about. “There are many locations for passengers to stand and stretch, and we are designing aircraft interiors that make it easier for passengers to get up from their seats,” he says. American Airlines has reduced the number of seats on its planes to provide more leg room. BA recently introduced a mid-priced World Traveller Plus section on some of its flights, with a new seat designed by Factory with greater leg room – for 20 per cent more than the price of an economy class ticket. The bulbous-looking seat includes a wider tray, more storage and a video monitor for each passenger.

Under the long-established stewardship of Teague and Boeing, improvements to Boeing jumbos are introduced cautiously, and are preceded by exhaustive user group testing. The 777 features more headroom above seats and interior lighting designed to add to the sense of space, but overall the changes are incremental. Dramatic revisions, or “blue sky” proposals such as on-board shops, automated food delivery systems or even larger bathrooms have been investigated by Teague, but have not been able to “buy their way on board,” as Teague Boeing vice president Kenneth Dowd puts it. Egenes puts the situation bluntly: “Anything that affects revenue space is a trade-off with ticket price.”

The urge for a complete design overhaul appears to be less restrained on the European side, where Airbus’s much-trumpeted A3XX superjumbo, now known as the A380, has become a kind of dream vehicle on to which the wishes of airlines, designers, and the press are projected. With 2006 now established as the delivery date, the exact contents of the magnificent double-decker flying machine still have to swim into focus. But its basic parameters are put simply by Airbus spokeswoman Mary Anne Greczyn: “Two stacked wide-body cabins with below-deck space that can accommodate some creative passenger amenities. Among them are meeting rooms, sleeping berths, showers, a casino, a bar, an exercise area, a duty-free shopping area even a fast-food franchise.”

Given that aviation regulations require that no passengers be below deck during take-off and landing, and given that any additional amenities add weight, thereby decreasing fuel economy and airline profits, it remains to be seen how many on-board gyms, bars and poker tables will actually get off the ground. Greczyn admits that an on-board hot tub is highly unlikely. She adds, “Another magazine has speculated that a tennis court would be possible. Again, not a chance. Too much room, and it would be a safety issue for passengers.”

Nevertheless, to entice airlines to view the lavish possibilities of the wide-body interior, Airbus asked Priestman Goode to design a full-size mock-up of the aircraft’s first class area. For the product group, it was an opportunity to completely rethink the cabin interior.

The result – a capacious cabin which is punctuated with sweeping partitions, curvaceous ceiling lights, seat-beds and one-piece bar stools – has a closer resemblance to a chic club than an aeroplane cabin.”It might be flying at 400 miles per hour but it still should be the most luxury hotel in the world,” says Priestman.

Of course, it is up to the A380’s buyers – the airlines, which include Virgin Atlantic, Qantas, Emirates, Air France, and Singapore International – to decide how many seats they wish to cram into the plane. Press reports have put the capacity at anything between 550 and 800, though Airbus naturally prefers to tout the lower figure. Cynics can at least rest easy with Greczyn’s assurance that an inch of extra elbow room is guaranteed.

Those in the rival camp remain sceptical about how much will make its way into the operational aircraft. As Teague’s Dowd puts it, “The real challenge for designers is not putting restaurants and bowling alleys on-board, it’s designing features that enhance the flight experience, and are affordable to the carrier.”

The Americans have greeted Airbus’s superjumbo with an animosity bordering on an out-and-out trade war. This is particularly ironic when you consider that the project emerged out of collaborative Euro-American research conducted in the early 1990s. Airbus and Boeing originally teamed up to look into the potential demand for a large aircraft, but came to different conclusions about the size of the demand, (Airbus said hundreds, Boeing, a few dozen) and parted company. Boeing has, however, recently discussed developing its own mega-jumbo, prompting johnny-come-lately retorts from Airbus. “We have a fundamental difference in the way we think the market will develop,” says Boeing spokesman John Dern. “But Boeing does feel that there is a market for larger, high-capacity aeroplane. We just don’t think the number will be the same.” Greczyn of Airbus had a different response: “It’s amazing what a little competition can do.”

A great deal is at stake. The IATA predicts that by 2010, the annual number of passenger journeys by air could exceed 2.3 billion. In 20 years, by some estimates, air passenger traffic will have tripled. This poses a congestion crisis. “The system simply can’t handle that,” says Greczyn. “Airports have only limited runway and gate space, and the air traffic control system is nearly saturated.”

Airbus’s philosophy is that introducing bigger planes such as the A380, operating on the major routes with more people aboard, will reduce the number of aircraft in the sky. Boeing argues that if you introduce more mid-sized, flexible planes such as the 777, you will be able to offer more flights from more airports over more routes, thereby opening up more runways and dispersing the load on air traffic control systems. Therein lie the ideological differences. The European consortium embraces communal transportation, while the US corporation embraces the old libertarian view: freedom to fly whenever, wherever, whatever.

But as air traffic continues to grow, with its diverse array of passenger needs, many believe that both Boeing-favoured “point-to-point” flights and Airbus-favoured “hub-to-hub” will be in demand. PSD Associates environment director Barry Jenkins points out that planes such as the A380 “may reduce plane numbers on longhaul routes but increase plane numbers on domestic routes”. Since hub-to-hub transportation could require two airport changes en route, it seems unlikely that the convenient alternative of flying direct will lose its appeal, even if the choice is between a DC-10 or a giant A380. Factory’s White adds that the continuing demand for executive class travel is why supersonic flight will remain part of the transportation equation, even if that means smaller, supersonic corporate jets. “Concorde is gathering miles on the old odometer, but I don’t think for a moment that supersonic air travel is going to be a relic of the space age,” says White. “When you do a day trip to New York on Concorde you realise that the rest of the world has a lot of catching up to do. There’s going to be a continuing and increasing demand for getting around the world as quickly as your messages.”

The challenges for designers may just be beginning. Airbus is reported to be at work on the development of its own supersonic jet. A Daily Mail report in December 2000 suggested that it would carry twice the passengers and fly 150 mph faster than Concorde.

In the short term, however, as most design teams agree, something will have to be done about the ageing air traffic control system and our crowded airports. “Data indicates that on-time arrivals are most important on shorter duration flights,” says Teague’s Egenes. “While comfort is the most important issue on more extended flights.” For Conran it’s a particularly sore point. “Why did it take us almost six hours travelling to make a 55-minute trip to Glasgow last Friday? Even a plane capable of travelling the speed of light, let alone sound, would have taken over five hours,” he says.

If an aircraft sits on a runway for hours awaiting take off, it becomes a slow-speed chugger. Even if it’s a lovingly revamped Concorde.

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