Buying a gangway to heaven

Say goodbye to stiff bones, popping ears, and swollen ankles; airline manufacturers are wising up to the idea of making air travel comfortable.

The skies will be darker in years to come and it won’t have anything to do with the greenhouse effect, French nuclear tests or volcanoes. On the computer screens of designers at leading aircraft-makers are visions of airliners to make the jumbo look like Babar.

Innovation-wise, airliner manufacturers have been in a holding pattern for decades. The metal tube, jammed full of seats designed for non-sleeping aliens, is what the world has come to expect of mass air transport. Yet these “megaliners”, which have been conceived principally as a means of shifting more passengers, are also interesting vehicles with a potential to house amenities and services unheard of on aircraft until now. Flying is unlikely to recapture the glamour that it is meant to have had in the Thirties and Forties, but it could become a more human, less anonymous experience. In 20 years, the plane at Terminal 36 could possibly be the first in a generation of intercontinental pleasure domes, with His Highness Richard “Kublai Khan” Branson at the controls.

Airlines have been forced to accept that flying in itself is simply not exciting anymore for vast swathes of the population. Craning across your neighbour to peer at the earth through a window the size of the on-board trifle is no one’s idea of a good time. Airlines too stretched by recession to invest in new aircraft have been refurbishing ageing fleets and fitting equipment to keep passengers occupied. On Virgin Atlantic, for example, the seat-back games and video systems that were once the privilege of first- and business-class travellers are now standard throughout the fleet’s economy class. Some companies are homing in on their passengers’ wallets with multimedia systems that offer shopping and gambling. The sky is plainly no limit for some airlines. Who’s to say what is legal and what isn’t at 36 000 feet over the mid-Atlantic?

It is relatively easy for airlines to design dazzling, multi-functional, on-screen services and leave their customer-led improvements at that. What has always been much harder is to make significant improvements to the furniture or interior design of planes and, harder still, to offer any variation on the tin-of-pilchards internal architecture of airliners.

In September, British Airways announced to a loud fanfare a 115m investment in new services for its “premium” passengers. “Revolutionary individual cabins” suggests a room for each passenger, but what the first class customer gets, in fact, is a redesigned seat/bed and table combination, with a screen around the back of the seat to shield him or her from fellow fat cats.

“Cabins” is definitely overdoing it, but BA’s changes do signal a bold departure from the traditional seat layout, and they are a direct response to customers’ requests for individual space while retaining the open environment of the cabin.

In improvements to its Club World service as well, BA has refused to buy off-the-shelf and sought real benefits with new equipment. A new seat, dubbed “the cradle”, has been designed from first principles by Jones Garrard, with ergonomics specialist ICE. The project represents the realisation on BA’s part that it can innovate in product design. “When they went private, they did the brand thing, the soft issues,” says Jones Garrard’s Mike Rodber. “Now they are redeveloping the brand, but also focusing on the hardware – identifying areas of product that can bring tangible benefit. Our seat was the first time they had done that. But they went further with the first class seat, specifying it even before they had the manufacturer on-board. That’s the way the railways have always done it, but not airlines.”

The signs are there that airlines are prepared to break out of the confines of traditional aircraft interior design. In the next generation of double-decker super-jumbo aircraft, there will be unprecedented scope to use space in new ways. Boeing, Airbus and McDonnell Douglas are all known to be working on designs for so-called “Very Large Aircraft” (VLAs) that will be able to carry up to 800 passengers. As airports, particularly in Asia, approach gridlock, a market is emerging for individual aircraft that can deliver larger and larger volumes of passengers. There are many operational and fuel economies in VLAs that interest airlines, who are also attracted by the opportunity to use extra lower-hold space to lay on a bar or cocktail lounge, an exercise room, work areas with laptops and fax machines, maybe even a real live casino.

One of the most stunning proposals comes from Ogle Design. The company has designed small aircraft for manufacture, but has never been involved with anything on the scale of its 800-seat AirCruiser concept. It is loosely based on an Airbus scheme featuring a “horizontal double-bubble” configuration of cabins. Instead of fairing over the fuselage to create an oval cross-section, Ogle introduced a sink between the two bubbles down the length of the plane. Cargo is stowed in a tube running down the centre of the lower deck. AirCruiser has four engines, with its wings in a “canard” formation, with the main wing at the rear and a lifting tailplane near the nose.

The project is a response to what Ogle design director Tom Karen agrees is a shoddy travel experience for the majority of customers on modern airliners. The aircraft has been shaped by a keen focus on customer needs and convenience. Hard-to-reach overhead luggage bins with a tendency to spill their load are replaced by a wall of accessible lockers in each cabin. A self-service restaurant with panoramic windows replaces the stewardess- unfriendly food trolley. The cockpit is offset to make room for a generous walk-in entrance, and passengers are welcomed once they are inside at a reception desk. In the middle of the fuselage is an atrium area which divides the cabins on both floors into more manageable, humanly-proportioned rooms. Windows in the ceiling offer a view of the stars. The cabins are devoted to the different needs of, for instance, the family with squawking, restless children, or the business person who needs e-mail, computers and telephones.

Despite an appearance that Dan Dare would probably admire, the AirCruiser is not a completely “blue-sky” project, according to Karen, who worked as an aircraft engineer for ten years before studying design.

“It’s a very, very inspired guess,” says Karen. “When we exhibited it recently, specialists and engineers found it totally credible.” One thing stopping manufacturers adopting the proposal is professional pride, according to Karen. “If any of them thought it could work, the fact that it was from an office of 50 people in Letchworth and not their own massed ranks of designers would make it stick in their gullet.”

The other problem is that to produce a completely new, giant aircraft from scratch would demand more resources than any single manufacturer could muster. However, Boeing and Airbus are rumoured to be in discussions about constructing a VLA. And even if they are only considering a super-jumbo, it might be the most exciting event in decades of aircraft design to see the sentiments of the Ogle proposal taken on-board.

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