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Following the Design Journey of Etihad’s Bold New Residence Suites

Jun 25, 2014 9:04 am

Skift Take

We’re still a bit stunned by the boldness of this move. Practical? Probably not in the long run. But it’s a fascinating design story.

— Jason Clampet

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Every designer’s idea of sheer panic is a blank sheet of paper. Imagine if this was given to you in the form of a completely empty A380 shell, and you were asked to create purely original ideas to fill it to the brim. It’s this blank piece of ‘metaphorical’ paper that was given to the Etihad Design Consortium (EDC) six years ago when Etihad ordered their A380s from Airbus.

Read part one to learn more about the big picture challenges.

Days after visiting Honour, I head on over to Acumen, another member of the EDC. Situated just around the corner in Clerkenwell, Acumen are also settling into their new offices, the epitome of London creativity, a bright and well-designed space that is already overflowing with young designers and experienced leaders.

After a quick tour, I am settled into the conference room, where a large screen is accompanied by Anthony Harcup and Nigel Lawson (a Director of the company), two of the leads on the project from Acumen’s side of the Etihad Design Consortium and taken through the design journey behind the different cabin classes that are about to be rolled out onto the Etihad A380 and 787. Sipping my coffee, I can’t wait for them to begin.

Etihad’s Residence and First Class Apartments

“We are so excited to finally be able to talk about this.” Anthony starts. For any designer, sometimes being given a visionary brief can be as challenging as working to tight constraints. So when the EDC were told to use Blue-Sky thinking, and eventually create the product that has been heralded as a game changer, this voyage wasn’t going to exactly be a fast one.

The EDC’s journey started way back in 2008 and Acumen, as part of the EDC had the task of designing and developing the seats for all the cabin classes.

Following the initial immersion phase and the co creation Big Talk customer research, Acumen embraced an intensive 6 month blue-sky concept phase – turning the whole company into an Etihad ‘think-tank’, the net result was a mass creation of hundreds of seating ideas spanning economy, premium economy, high density business class, business class, super business class, first class and even VIP solutions. Through the countless initial concepts, four first classes, four business classes and four economy class concepts were pieced together to present to Etihad.

From the early concepts it was easy to see the hallmarks of the final design. There was a clear initial vision which was carried through to completion. Acumen acknowledged that First Class and VIP passengers should be able to sleep and eat in two distinct places. Anthony explains: “We felt that the key differentiator to lead the first class sector must be to offer a separate seat and bed, but unlike the products that have gone before, neither the seat, bed, nor the suite itself should be compromised in achieving this”.

The big breakthrough for the EDC was creating a single aisle (which at 27” is much wider than a regular aisle) first class product, an industry first in itself. This game-changing idea allowed Acumen to provide the real estate for their passengers to have ultimate comfort and space, without compromising layout.

The very first layout, offered a curved and sweeping central aisle, with suites providing a central seat, storage and mini bar. A nice element to the initial concept was to have a soundproofed cocoon around the seat, which had inbuilt speakers, meaning no need for headphones. However both the curve and soundproofed seats were knocked on the head to allow for more space and more comfort.

Acumen’s earliest layout of The Residence had three distinct areas from the outset; lounge, sleeping and bathroom with shower. The layout of these zones was the only element to really change through the design process. In the early sketches for the LOPA (Layout Of Passenger Accommodations) The Residence is shown on the right hand side of the cabin. It was only due to logistical Airbus requirements it got shifted to the left hand side of the cabin. It was also down to the strict regulations set out by EASA, and commercial restraints outlined by Etihad that elements such individual vanity units, including running water were removed before the final version.

The Residence has had an interesting design journey, Nigel expands on this: “In the initial concept phase our friends at Factorydesign came up with the idea for a “penthouse suite” for VIP passengers split across two floors of the aircraft. Acumen further developed this idea around the single aisle cabin layout and found a home for it at the front of the cabin – and so The Residence was born!”

The idea of the interconnecting First Class suites was part of Acumen’s initial concept, but instead of a sliding screen, there was a full length door between 6 of the 9 first class suites allowing for much more interaction between the occupants.

After the initial design process, the First Class ‘Apartments’ and ‘The Residence’ were presented to Etihad CEO James Hogan and his team in Abu Dhabi. 12 months later, once the concepts were signed off, the EDC went to work in realizing their vision.

This phase was all about advancing the seating concepts from 2D ideas and drawings, through to a full scale first-round styling mock-up with representative bed/seat and table kinematic ideas, photo-real cabin renderings and animated cabin fly-throughs – for executive level sign-off prior to supplier selection.

The project was full of challenges. “The Whole cabin is full of truly original conditions with no predecessors. There was a level of conceptual development required at every stage in order to assimilate and test the passenger experience. We were required to create vast amounts of mock-ups from the small mechanisms right through to entire cabins,” says Anthony.

Anthony went on to show me images of the mock-ups, which were impressive by any standards. It was only by creating such full-scale recreations, that functionality and space could be assessed. “Could a passenger retrieve their bag when the bed was deployed? How will a passenger access the minibar?”

The apartments have a footprint of 39 square feet, which is the largest in its class by a long way. With such a large footprint, it was important to make sure the single aisle was wide enough that passengers could pass each other comfortably.  This additional suite space also provided so much room for passenger stowage that the decision was made to remove the overhead bins – creating a wonderful new cabin aesthetic, and allowing the headroom to raise the height of the suite doors. At 64” they are the tallest in the sky.

Once the cabin had been mocked-up 1:1, and a visual fly through created of what the entire aircraft would look like, (including the galley and communal spaces designed by EDC partner Factorydesign), the EDC could go about securing suppliers and refining finishes.

The finishing details were a mammoth task in themselves. These weren’t off the shelf seats. The Rearward facing seats have an ergonomic position (6 degrees of extra recline) that varies from the forward facing seats in order to increase comfort during take off and landing, this means that every one of the 9 first class suites has its own subtle design differences that had to be considered.

The Residence was developed and adapted to offer more space in the bedroom, more head height in the shower and to offer windows to the passengers when seated in the lounge. The sliding privacy doors all had to be tested and approved. And the Arabic fret work is cleverly designed to allow the cabin crew to see into the suites to check on passengers, easier than it was for passengers to see out, increasing the feeling of privacy.

When it came to fabric choices, it was actually the EASA requirement that the Residence had a curtain to provide privacy rather than a door when occupied by two guests, as this was a stipulation to allow the passengers ample room for emergency egress. The fabric curtain incorporates the same fret work design as the suite doors, with two additional layers to provide more privacy, and to allow the crew to check the demeanor of the passenger without disturbing them.

Even the leather upholstery development required numerous design workshops in Italy as Acumen directed the design vision for the suites to incorporate Poltrona Frau signature branding and styling. Incredibly detailed stitch documents were created to inform the stitching spacing, type and termination for every upholstered panel.

As the seat spaces were so unique, everything had to be designed from scratch, and it is this attention to detail that Anthony talks about with great pride. “For the translating duvan-style beds in first Class, we had to make sure that the bed mechanism, including the retracting and rotating lap belts had to fit into a 1.5” thick volume in order to maximize the under-bed stowage. This conceptual engineering took weeks to resolve”

The whole seat concepts, when finally signed off by Etihad and their team were given to B/E Aerospace in Tuscon, Arizona and Miami, Florida where Acumen supported B/E Aerospace’s engineers and designers as they took ownership and developed the production suites. “It was important to help ensure B/E Aerospace fully understood the design intent in order for them to deliver what we had envisaged – and that all the suite detailing seamlessly worked together” Anthony mentions. “It meant for many trips over there… in fact, I even have membership at a local gym in Tuscon. That’s how many times I have been.”

I couldn’t help but feel awed by the amount of detail that went into the design of the First Class and Residence products. Despite a considerable investment – delivering ‘above and beyond’, the airline had to be able to ensure a commercial return on their product. The fundamental use of the dead space on the A380 as a bedroom (used by some carriers as a forward lounge) was a very smart move, allowing for a truly expansive VIP suite with little extra cost to the footprint of the First Class cabin.

Whilst the product is still yet to be installed into the A380 fleet, and most may not be able to afford such a first class fare, the fact that the EDC have created such a game changing product, can only really benefit all customers on all airlines, as right now, all other airlines are sitting up and taking note.

Here are some facts on the design of the A380 Residences and First Class Apartments:

The Residence

  • The Residence is the first ever VIP product proposition on a commercial aircraft
  • The singular cabin class offers unprecedented privacy with a completely enclosed sleeping compartment and 125 square feet of real-estate.
  • There are dedicated ‘solid state’ zones – Lounge/Bathroom/Bedroom just like an exclusive hotel room
  • The one product had to be certified for two people – Large double bed/ Large double seat sofa – An unprecedented travel experience
  • There are three separate and unique colour schemes with unique table marquetry and carpet designs for each.
  • Including The Residence and 9 x unique ‘Apartments’, this cabin represents the largest single data set for one single programme in Acumen’s history – totaling the equivalent of three to four first class seats
  • Product is Patented/pending.

The Apartments

  • The cabin offers a singular 27” aisle- no wide body has ever had this before.
  • The Apartments have the largest footprint in the FC market – 39sq ft with unique fore and aft seating layout.
  • Each suite provides full-size vanity unit with amenity stowage/ mirror/ lights and waste bin.
  • Real-estate is so large, high 64” privacy walls are required to maintain/enhance privacy. Height and size of these walls create a distinctive architectural feel unlike other First Class products.
  • Separate articulating transverse ottoman/bed assembly has never been seen before – delivering game-changing suite flexibility for relaxing/ sleeping/ working/ socialising.
  • The 30” wide seat can recline into a relaxed Z-position with the guest comfort further enhanced by the intelligent Lantal pneumatic cushion system.
  • Every first class seat has at least one window with some having three.
  • The 80.5” long ottoman with safety lap-belts provides a class-leading social environment for up to 3 passengers.
  • Product is Patented/pending.

This article originally appeared on TheDesignAir, a Skift content partner.

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