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“Amazing! It’s like being on the Orient Express” I instinctively say when seeing the designs for the Economy Smartseat of Etihad’s new fleet. My interviewees all smile at that comment. I guess that must be called ‘hitting the proverbial nail on the head.’ In our final part of our four-part series, we take a look at the ‘back of the plane’.
It is notoriously hard to create innovation in economy class. The premise of an economy cabin is simple: Take people from A to B in relative comfort whilst ensuring the most affordable and profitable ticket prices for the experience. Transforming that into an original and groundbreaking design is much harder. Historically the design of such a cabin is purely a game of numbers.
The Etihad Design Consortium (EDC) originally suggested a wide variety of futuristic seating configurations that would have blown the mind of a passenger – that sadly we can’t show you. They would have turned the economy experience on its head, but in the end, the limitations of space, affordability and practicality all came into play. It was these very limitations that formed what Etihad have successfully launched as their new economy product.
Ask most designers, and they would agree they relish with restrictions. It is restrictions that make designers work hardest, and with the most innovation.
“We have a relatively small run of economy seats for any manufacturer, so they naturally were less keen to create a brand new product,” says Anthony Harcup of Etihad Design Consortium member, Acumen. It is an understandable reaction as the set up costs would have been huge, and returns on the seats so small.
But this isn’t to say that the research was wasted or not valued by Etihad. A variety of new initiatives came from the original emersion phase ‘Big Talks’, run by Promise, “We spent an hour discussing the uncomfortable situation of being sat near a crying child, and how to best solve the situation. It was after an hour a mother spoke up telling us how she also was uncomfortable by putting fellow passengers in the situation. It was from this conversation we rolled out our Sky Nanny program, which has proven to be a big success” said Peter Baumgartner, CCO of Etihad.
It came down to chosing a seat and manufacturer. “After reviewing a number of different ‘off the shelf’ economy seating products from a number of different manufacturers, Etihad decided to customize a seat design by Zodiac Seats US as it was the most practical solution and offered the most opportunity for customization” says Richard Nicholas, the lead economy product designer from Acumen.
It was the simple yet ingenious concept of the fixed wing on the economy seat that is the big customer experience changer. It proves a simple tweak to a product can make the world of difference, something Jonathan Ive from Apple would no doubt agree upon. The fixed wing not only adds an element of privacy for couples travelling together, it also gives every passenger something solid to rest their head against to sleep better on long haul flights. I have to admit, I always try to go for a window seat so I can prop myself on the aircraft wall, so to know I have this option on every seat is a bonus.
It’s only on one side too, allowing a passenger to use the flexed wing of the other side to better support and cradle the head. The fixed headrests are an element that reminded me of train journeys of old, big supportive and private winged seats that you could nestle into and slowly be rocked to sleep in.
The original premise by the EDC was to break up the sea of seats, and create more individual areas, so different blocks of colour were used to break up sections of seating, with a series of contrasting soft finishes to further ‘zone’ the seat map. This was carried out utilizing 3 sets of seat colours and 3 sets of accent colours, making 9 differing seat combinations. There were talks and initial designs to stagger the seats, to help break up the long rows of seats and add more privacy (and cleverly shoulder room too) but eventually, the designs were refined to offer what we see today.
Space, and functionality is paramount in Etihad’s design ethos for the A380. “Most people don’t realize the entrance way images we released were for the economy section,” says James Sanderson, Manager of Corporate Communications, as we were lead through the innovation centre to see a mock-up of the cabin. The sense of space is amazing. The large entrance way, with its covered galley is certainly a game changer for the airline industry, it feels like entering business class, and for us, we wouldn’t be surprised if some travellers think they have been upgraded to the non-existent Premium Economy cabin.
It’s a testament to how Factorydesign have managed to tie the whole aircraft together, to make every cabin feel premium, and make the galleys seemingly disappear. Simple elements such as light gobos that cast patterened and less obvious light wells across surfaces and flooring, that make the aircraft seem more natural, and less mechanical to the eye.
This article originally appeared on TheDesignAir, a Skift content partner.