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When it comes to innovation, the world’s airlines rarely demand massive change from aircraft manufacturers.
Having watched Concorde fizzle in the early 2000s, carriers generally don’t want planes that can fly faster. Many don’t even want aircraft that can fly farther, calculating there’s no reason to buy an airplane capable of flying 18 hours if it only flies between New York and London. And for passenger amenities, most carriers don’t want on-board bars or showers, either.
Instead, their needs usually are basic, practical, and driven by finances. They want planes that will carry as many people and as much cargo as possible, while burning less fuel than previous-generation aircraft. Rival Boeing’s 787 is a commericial success not because it’s slightly more comfortable for passengers — Boeing designed it to limit jet-lag – but because it’s far more fuel efficient than older aircraft it replaces. The 787 can turn once marginal routes into moneymakers, even accounting for the plane’s high price tag.
But with a new program, announced Tuesday, Airbus wants to help airlines change the calculation. Airbus seeks to introduce a new platform that could make it more practical for airlines to temporarily install coffee shops, gyms, yoga studios, children’s play areas, sleeping pods or bars.
These amenities have been possible before, and airlines have almost universally not wanted them. But this time could be different, Airbus says. The company is calculating its new concept might permit carriers to add features in a more cost-effective manner.
Flexibility is key. Through the program, which Airbus calls “Transpose,” an airline could reconfigure cabins for every flight. A carrier might add sleeping pods and an in-flight coffee bar for a long and potentially lucrative Airbus A330 flight from Los Angeles to Munich. But then the airline could replace the pods and bar with extra coach seats for the aircraft’s next flight to Mumbai, which is shorter and might have fewer high-value customers.
By using technology now common on all-cargo aircraft, Airbus is betting an airline could transform cabins in minutes or hours. Today, an airline that installs a bar is stuck with it on every flight until it retrofits an aircraft, a time-consuming process that can take weeks or even months.
Still, passengers shouldn’t get too excited. Airbus hasn’t fully worked out the technology, and it will be two to four years before the company plans to show it off on a flying plane. That’s assuming the project isn’t killed first, because of a lack of customers, or pushback from regulators.
And even if Airbus solves its technical issues and the product comes to market, there’s no indication airlines would want the flashy amenities. When Airbus developed the A380 a decade ago, it promised airlines they could install casinos, gyms, beauty salons and showers. But except for two airlines that installed showers, none of that stuff ever came to market.
Most carriers just prefer seats — lots of them.
“It’s a matter of, what can you do, versus what does it make sense to do?” said Scott Hamilton, an aviation industry consultant and blogger who follows Airbus and Boeing closely. “The early 747s had piano bars in them. And with the A380, they talked about casinos and showers. You had the flexibility to do that. But it all depends on whether you want to give up the seats.”
The technology Airbus proposes is simple, and similar to what cargo airlines already use. Airlines would have modular cabins they could install, and uninstall through a massive cargo door on the cabin’s main deck. Carriers could move modules between flights as cargo operators shift freight pallets.
Some flights might get a bar and a gym, while others could have hundreds of coach seats.
Airbus is working out the details through its one-year-old innovation arm, called A3, based in Silicon Valley. The innovation center is located far from Airbus’ France headquarters so it can “disrupt Airbus Group and its competitors before someone else does,” according to the company.
As basic as the concept is, there is one major issue that could spook airlines: Existing passenger aircraft cannot use this technology, in part because they do not have the cargo door required to accept cabin modules.
But Airbus has a fix. It makes an-cargo versions of its A330, and these aircraft are designed to cargo pallets. What Airbus wants to do is meld its existing freighter and passenger jet designs to create a new variant of aircraft capable of handling modular cabins. It’ll use existing freighters as it base.
“We are using a modified freighter variant of a commercial aircraft as our reference point, because that’s an alternative to spending decades and billions of dollars on designing an entirely new aircraft,” said Martin Sieben, the project’s chief architect.
That means an airline that wants modular cabins will need to buy an aircraft that’s different than the rest of its fleet. But Sieben said carriers should be willing to do so.
“Most airlines operate fleets that are composed of a variety of different types of aircraft, so taking on Transpose-enabled aircraft wouldn’t change that,” Sieben said.
Hamilton, the aviation industry consultant, has not been briefed on the program, and he said it was intrigued by the idea. Still, Hamilton noted that using a freighter platform for a passenger aircraft could be tricky. Freighter aircraft tend not be as efficient because they’re designed to haul bulky freight. That could result in an airline being forced to fly a heavier, and less fuel efficient, passenger aircraft than it wants.
“Usually, you have to take the airplane into your hangar or your maintenance, repair and overhaul vendor and do a complete reconfiguration of the aircraft,” Hamilton said. “That can take the aircraft out of service for some period of time. If these can be put into modules and you don’t have a premium cost to doing that, so much the better. But if you are required to order a freighter-type airplane to have that flexibility, you could be paying for freighter capability that you don’t necessarily want.”
Airbus isn’t yet saying exactly how similar the new aircraft will be to a freighter. That’s partly because it’s early. Sieben said the group is working through various problems, including how to manage the weight and balance of the aircraft.
“We have to account for payload weights and how varying arrangements of modules will affect the aircraft’s center of gravity — both before take-off and during flight, and as passengers move around between modules,” Sieben said.
For Airbus to have a chance to bring its concept to market, it knows it must persuade airlines that modular cabins will be a money-maker.
It will not be easy. Airlines seek to maximize revenue from each square inch, and historically they’ve done that by adding seats. That’s true in business class, too, with many carriers installing the densest configurations possible, even when installing suites.
“There are a lot of tough nuts to crack,” said Jason Chua, an A3 executive working on the project. “We need to show airlines that this is something that has a viable business model for them. They need to know if they invest in an aircraft like this they will be rewarded on the revenue side.”
Airbus is betting airlines can be creative. Perhaps, Chua said, an airline might find a company to sponsor its bar or coffee shop on some flights.
An airline also might install a revenue-producing store. On some flights, duty free sales are profitable, and it might make sense for an airline to offer a full-scale shop. But on other flights, few passengers buy items. On those flights, a carrier would remove the shop.
Today, Korean Air Lines has a shop on its A380s, which is why it has fewer seats than other operators. But Korean doesn’t have much flexibility. That shop stays on the plane, regardless of the route, and there’s no way to remove it when the plane flies from Seoul to Hong Kong, rather than from Seoul to Los Angeles.
“Today, with traditional cabin you make a choice,” Chua said. “Let’s say you put a bar or you put a shower in. You need to be very confident that choice is going to be viable five or 10 years from now. Because of that, there is a lot of conservatism in the industry. People don’t want to take a huge risk on something that will be around for a long time.”
While bars, shops and yoga studios are sexier, it’s possible airlines might use modular cabins to switch the types of seats they offer on each flight.
Today, each airlines has a standard seating configuration on each plane, and it rarely changes. But demand for each cabin — coach, business and first — fluctuates constantly. Some routes have higher business class demand, while some require more coach seats.
Demand even changes based on day of week and time of year. Airlines need lots of business class seats for a Sunday departure from New York to London, but far fewer on a Tuesday in August.
For now, it’s not worth it to switch the seating configurations because of short-term fluctuations in demand. The best airline can do is change the type of aircraft flying each route. But with the new Airbus product, that could change.
“If they can [reconfigure seating] in just a matter of hours rather than taking the airplane out of service for several days, that would be the advantage,” Hamilton said.
Even if this idea never comes to market, it won’t necessarily be a failure, said Brian Solis, principal analyst at Altimeter Group and an expert on corporate innovation. Airbus, he noted, is one of many corporations that has set up a Silicon Valley outpost in hopes its California-based employees can “sort of breathe the air and drink the water to create new products.”
Sometimes the innovation centers do not not produce viable products, and the corporation still benefits, Solis said.
“They really do believe in this mantra of failure is a good thing,” Solis said. “When it comes to innovation centers, one of the metrics to success is, did you learn new expertise? Did the team gain new experiences and insight? And can those make the team strong to continue to innovate?”