Design to cash in as airlines realign

Where next for design in the airline industry? Emma Germain argues that future opportunities are likely to be at the top end of the market

The airline industry has hit some turbulence of late, with rising oil prices threatening the viability of many carriers and a question mark over cheap fares. However, there could be opportunities for designers if the sector starts to realign itself as a higher-end service offer, in which the passenger experience justifies rising fares.

Nicolas De Santis, Twelve Stars chief executive and former marketing and sales director of Opodo, the travel portal for a range of European airlines, agrees. De Santis also project managed the rebranding and relaunch of British Airways in the 1980s.

‘Eighty per cent of airlines concentrate on flying people from A to B, but they need to up their game in terms of using design, as Virgin Atlantic has done, if they are to succeed,’ he says.

Branding and interiors work is still buoyant in the private and commercial sectors of the airline industry, particularly in expanding markets like the Middle East. The future seems to be about ‘air taxi’ offerings, the luxury travel sector, and the expansion of airline clubs such as Oneworld, Star Alliance and Sky Team, which encompass some of the world’s biggest airlines within their umbrella brands. At the low-cost end of life, Ryanair’s chief executive Michael O’Leary said this month that he might have to ground 10 per cent of the carrier’s fleet.

There has been a surge in the number of design appointments in the Middle Eastern airline industry. In April, UK interior design consultancy James Park Associates was appointed by Gulf Air to revamp its branding and upgrade its fleet of aircraft (DW 17 April). The aim in this region, where several carriers including the International Airline of United Arab Emirates and Etihad Airways, are vying to become the premium airline is about strengthening the brands. Hence the appointment of James Park Associates with its portfolio of luxury projects including the Venice Simplon Orient-Express and the Mauritian Taj Exotica resort and spa.

A Gulf Air spokesman says the company will be expanding its 35-strong fleet of aircraft to 85 by 2013. Other work undertaken in the Middle East includes the Etihad Airways lounge and retail design in Abu Dhabi airport and city centre malls by London’s Above Consultancy.

JPA’s senior designer Ben Orson says, ‘Airlines are showing a greater appetite for designers to be more ambitious’. He says that one of the areas aircraft companies are focusing on is weightsaving. If designers can create seats made from composite lighter materials, such as carbon fibres, this optimises the fuel efficiency of aircrafts.

Interior designer Ceri Rocca works for Design Q, a consultancy that completes high-end aircraft interiors for luxury jets. She says 70 per cent of the designs she creates are for Middle Eastern projects.

The global banking crisis is not impacting on the super-rich, who continue to require designers to create bespoke play-things for their leisure time. Trends include private planes with dining rooms and bedrooms which look, Rocca says, ‘like miniature hotels on wings’. With gold-plated and trimmed details, the planes can have price tags stretching into the multi-million-pound mark, with interiors budgets to match.

Meanwhile, airlines operating in the West need a strong brand to be able to sustain consumer loyalty while they face obstacles from the credit crunch and rising fuel costs.

Design consultancy Landor Associates is responsible for the brand strategy used for airlines including Jet Airways, Air Mauritius and BMI. Its executive creative director Peter Knapp predicts that design work in the airline industry is likely to come from the streamlining of alliance groups.

‘It would make sense for customers to use the Oneworld alliance, which brings together American Airlines, British Airways and Qantas, to navigate themselves,’ he says.

The BA, AA and Qantas lounges, for example, could be amalgamated into a Oneworld area for passengers flying on any of the alliance’s airlines, so the Oneworld brand would need a stronger identity than its member airlines, he suggests.

Designers may also find their skills in demand with the emergence in Europe of business-jet taxi services such as Blink, which began flying last month ( 27 May). With identity designs created by Brand Environment, its taxi-style services take off around the world using a very light jet aircraft that can carry up to eight passengers at a time.

This kind of low-cost, personalised air travel for business travellers might become increasingly popular in Europe if demand echoes its popularity in the US, which Knapp describes as a ‘boom market’.

Brand Environment creative director Shaughn McGurk says, ‘If this offering proves popular, there could be room in the future for plenty of design players.’


• The world’s most global industry is the most fragmented, with more than 1000 airlines competing for profits

• In the past 60 years, airlines made £5.6 trillion in revenues, but only £16bn in profits (just 0.3% average profit margin)

• The industry is £97bn in debt

• With oil at £54 per barrel, the fuel bill for airlines for 2008 will be £90bn (£20bn more than 2007)

Data and figures from the International Air Transport Association’s General Meeting and World Air Transport Summit in Istanbul on 1-3 June

Latest articles