Sizing up the future of air travel

From private cabins with designer fabrics and en suite bathrooms in first class to on-screen virtual air attendants taking orders in economy, the future of air travel is going high-tech and high-style.

Modern technology has made it possible for airline interior designers to fit jets with more gadgets in the expensive seats and still add vital centimetres to leg room in the cheaper rows.

“You can sum up the general trend as more room and bigger screens,” says Jerry McGill, a sales director at Aircraft Services Systems (ACS), a New York-based supplier of high-end in-flight entertainment equipment, one of scores of firms gathered at an airline interiors expo in Hong Kong.

At the top end, designers believe the time is almost near when fliers will be able to check into their own cabins at the front of the plane in the same way they check into a hotel room.

“We are rapidly moving towards the time when we have individual cabins in first class,” says Catharina Lubke, of German seat-design company Recaro, which supplies seating to most of Europe’s major airlines.

“Passengers will have control of their own environment, they can lock a door and treat it like their own bedroom — they could even have their own bathrooms,” Lubke adds.

In the meantime, designers have managed to liberate space by all manner of design innovations.

From tinkering with seat arrangements and the use of newer lightweight materials to completely revamping chair designs, manufacturers have managed to add centimetres to the passenger’s personal space.

French company Sicma Aero has created a range of self-contained living units, the SkyLounge, that allow business-class passengers to stretch out horizontally, surrounded by utility space in which can be installed private fridges or business equipment such as faxes or printers.

Britain’s Thompson Solutions has also created a seating unit that reclines to a fully horizontal position and includes a workbench hatch.

And European flyers are already being treated to soothing massages from a new seat developed by Recaro.

The business-class seats, which also fold out flat, boast cushions constructed from air-filled cells that can be inflated and deflated to suit body shape or to knead head, neck or back rhythmically.

Wireless technology

The cutting edge of airline innovation, according to executives, is in economy class, where growth has been most rapid since the post-9/11 fallout in the airline industry.

Designers are limited somewhat by safety regulations — all chairs must be strong enough to withstand the impact of an object travelling at 16G, the G-force generated at take-off. But they have managed to find ways to take a centimetre here and there.

Northern Ireland-based Thompson has developed a “staggered” seating arrangement in which seats are fixed in diagonal lines instead of parallel lines, allowing passengers to lay against the side of their neighbour’s head-rest.

With tilting instead of fixed seats, project director Brian Rogers says the arrangement means the arm rest can be reduced in size, saving so much room that airlines could add an extra column of seats to wide-bodied aircraft.

“Our tests on a range of aircraft average out at adding 10% more seats,” says Rogers.

The seats are at production stage and two major airlines in Europe and the Middle East have already shown interest in the design, Rogers adds.

Recaro has managed to add 5cm to economy-class leg room by simply moving the magazine rack up higher and made sitting more comfortable with the inclusion of a flexible seat base.

That eases pressure on the backs of passengers’ legs and lessens the conditions that could lead to deep-vein thrombosis, a potentially fatal illness believed to be exacerbated by sitting in the same position for long periods of time.

In-flight entertainment is also set to move in leaps and bounds, with connectivity to the internet the main area of research.

“The aim is to recreate in the sky what you can do on the ground,” says David Tan, marketing director with Thales, which specialises in aircraft electronics — or avionics.

Wireless technology means more information can be channelled through the planes, which will increasingly become servers in the sky, with broadband internet and telephone links via satellite.

Bigger screens are also a feature of the new generation of aircraft seating designs. However, ACS’s McGill says that comes with a huge cost.

“The bigger screens are not only heavier, but they are incredibly expensive,” he explains.

“Screens have to be able to withstand impact tests and those modifications add up: a 42-inch [106cm] plasma screen that costs $4 000 in the store would cost $23 000 with air modifications.”

Economy-class passengers will get probably the most benefit from high-tech avionics. For a start, wireless connections demand fewer cables and junction boxes that would normally sit under seats, and that means more foot room.

Also, Thales has created an on-board customer-relations programme that will allow passengers to call up a virtual cabin-crew member on screen, who will take personalised orders for meals and drinks.

“Can you imagine on the giant A380s, with 500 passengers, how much effort that will save the cabin crew?” Tam points out. — AFP

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