Hot-Swappable Airplane Interiors Might Make Flying Not Suck
The good people of A3, the California-flavored startup-within-a-multinational-corporation at Airbus, calls it a “low fidelity aircraft,” but I’ll level with you: Its latest experiment went down in a tent in an airplane hangar.
Still, Airbus had loftier goals than the locale might suggest. Researchers armed with Ikea furniture, board games, and plastic-wrapped meals, wanted to know how people would handle themselves if airlines swapped those cramped rows of miserable seats for something more imaginative. They tested something A3 calls “Transpose”—a conceptual modular cabin that offers a bevy of in-flight activities: a facial over here, a latte over there, a spin class up front.
Think that’s weird? Well, once the plane lands, a crew can pop out one interior and toss in a new one, moving things about to create the next flight’s passenger experience.
If this concept, which Airbus did in December, seems too good to be true, that’s because it likely is (more on that in a bit). But unlike many aircraft designs that evoke either hope or horror, Airbus hasn’t tossed this idea into the lavatory trash can just yet. It has six people on the concept full-time, and they’re getting help from 100 engineers and product designers.
The testing, which involved 66 human lab rats, revealed that people dug the idea, and had no problems navigating the newness. “We found out that during the chaos times, passengers started directing each other: ‘We need a rule here, we need a social norm of how we pass each other,’” says Larry Cheng, A3’s passenger experience design and research lead. Luxury and choice may not be familiar concepts to most economy flyers, but this test indicates they’d catch on quick.
Out of the Lab, Into the Sky
So when do you get to hop aboard? Well, after Airbus gets all those cool interior concepts past the Federal Aviation Administration and its European equivalent. (A3 says talks are in progress, but there’s no real timeline for regulatory approval.) And after it figures out all of the important engineering stuff, like how to run electrical, plumbing, and oxygen and fire systems through a plane with an interior that shifts about.
That’s the practical stuff. Then there’s the question of whether airlines—the customers here—want highly customizable interiors. “In my mind, you have enough equipment manufacturers building enough variance in aircraft types that airplanes are able to closely match for their structure and market focus,” says Gary Weissel, an aircraft interiors consultant. The headache of storing and changing interiors might not make sense when an airline can just lease the craft it needs, for as long as it needs it.
But the biggest impediment might be financial, because any square footage on an airplane not hosting a human body is losing revenue. “You have to charge people to fly them through the air, because they’re taking up weight and space in a cylindrical tube that’s burning hydrocarbons,” says Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst with the Teal Group. More space to move around means less money for profit-hungry airlines. Airbus says Transpose could defray costs through brand sponsorships—maybe SoulCycle would pay to host cloud classes for high-class clientele?—and by very carefully balancing its tradeoffs.
The good news for you, suffering sardine, is that many of Transpose’s ideas are, in a way, modular. Airbus’ work on the shiny stuff, like coffee bars in the sky, could apply to the simpler things that still make a difference, like easily installing newer and cushier seats, or offering à la carte amenities. “It’s very risky, it’s a very different way of thinking,” says Jason Chua, an A3 project executive, “and that’s why we’re running a ton of different experiments.”
So the next time you see a tent in an air hangar filled with Ikea furniture and grown-ups playing “Operation,” know that at least they’re trying something new in there.