MIAMI – The decline and slow recovery of air travel demand have aircraft designers rethinking how plane interiors should look, function and feel.

Modern airlines transport more passengers than ever, but things have not yet recovered to pre-COVID levels. To attract travelers and improve the experience, companies are now looking for ways to maximize available room, comfort and safety.

These three design trends show how the industry is preparing for the future of commercial aviation as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wind down. Airplane upgrades keep health, safety and aesthetics in mind, invigorating the industry with a bit of glamour at the same time.


1. New Seating Configurations

The COVID-19 pandemic has already transformed the air travel industry. Now, there’s evidence that changes made during the pandemic could reshape how designers approach creating plane interiors. 

One long-lasting change may be using design features like modular middle seat partitions made from plexiglass or similar materials. They keep customers distanced and make it harder for disease to spread. 

In other cases, designers are considering reconfiguring seating to space out passengers. Removing middle seats provides passengers with more space and offers them some breathing room. 

More ambitious design changes and new seating configurations may offer even more comfort to passengers. Designers participating in the Crystal Cabin Awards have suggested several radically different designs that partially or totally reshape how airplane seats are arranged. 

One designer rearranged the seats so the interior resembles a coworking space, complete with a “productivity zone” that features a table, allowing passengers to work while on the flight. This design could make air travel much more appealing for busy people. 

Another design spaces out seats and uses swivel chairs. These chairs provide passengers with some extra space and allow them to change how they’re positioned. People would also have the option to preprogram the chair before they board, changing characteristics like the reclining angle. Additional control over how the chairs are positioned lets passengers maximize their comfort based on their needs and preferences. Extra legroom and space to move would also make the flight more comfortable.

These changes can boost passenger comfort while potentially reducing the spread of disease or dangerous airborne particles throughout a plane cabin.

Image: CleanAirTM

2. Upgrades for Ventilation and Cleaning Systems

Ventilation and passenger density have also become critical design topics, with designers more interested than ever in finding ways to reduce the spread of disease and keep cabin air as clean as possible. 

Commercial aircraft ventilation systems were originally designed to remove cigarette smoke from the cabin. Typically, most commercial aircraft recirculate around 10%-50% of the air. It passes through a filter approximately 20 to 30 times per hour — but the filter’s quality impacts how well the ventilation system can capture airborne particulates that may cause disease.

Modern planes increasingly use high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters that can capture 99.9% of particles, including viruses and bacteria, that are between 0.1 and 0.3 micrometers in diameter. According to current research, these modern systems seem to do a good job at preventing the spread of COVID-19, especially on flights where behaviors like masking and social distancing are mandatory. 

Designers are interested in making these systems even better at capturing or destroying dangerous particles. Examples of new airplane cleaning tools include ultraviolet (UV) systems that disinfect the air and surfaces like seat covers.

Even after the COVID-19 pandemic is over, these innovations will keep passengers and airline staff much healthier. 

The sealed environment of a plane cabin can contribute to the spread of viruses like the flu — and epidemiologists have linked outbreaks to air travel in the past. These design changes could reduce the spread of these diseases, as well.

Dangerous chemical fumes can also create danger for aircraft passengers. Elastomers and natural rubbers are two of the most common materials used to manufacture seals. In airplanes, they keep heated jet engine oil from leaking into the air supplied to the plane cabin. Some research has suggested that fumes from this oil have contaminated cabin air in the past, causing health issues for occupants.

Improved filters, seals and oxygen delivery systems can prevent those fumes or other dangerous substances from threatening the health of pilots, staff and passengers.

Yasava Solutions’ Zen interior: Image: Yasava

3. Interior Redesigns for Space and Comfort

Some passengers find air travel to be a claustrophobic experience. To improve comfort and encourage demand, designers are experimenting with new seating and decoration strategies that make aircraft interiors feel much more spacious and comfortable.

Some design changes are subtle but provide a noticeable increase in the feeling of space available to passengers. The new Embraer Phenom 300E moves control panels to the aircraft’s ceiling, offering the illusion of some extra space. 

Other design strategies use spectacle to provide the illusion of space. Yasava Solutions’ Zen interior leverages wall-sized OLEDs to give passengers their choice of interior decor. Available patterns can be abstract or mimic realistic environments, like a forest or cloudscape. 

The system allows the plane’s interior to present pleasing designs that mimic wood or stone without the designer incorporating these materials into the interior walls. According to the system’s designer, this adds to the aircraft’s sustainability, providing passengers with some extra comfort while also ensuring an eco-friendly design.

In the near future, as electric aircraft become more common, these design innovations may help designers make planes with extraordinarily small carbon footprints.

The Maverick Project: Render: Rosen Aviation coop. SKY-Style & KIP-Creating

How New Design Strategies May Transform Airplane Interiors

Changing market conditions are forcing the air travel industry to adapt fast. As a result, designers are adopting new design strategies for aircraft interiors that take things to the next level. Comfort, customization and ventilation may all be essential considerations for aircraft interiors. 

New cabin arrangements that keep the air fresh, offer additional space and provide surfaces for in-the-air work may help airlines appeal to customers who haven’t returned to air travel just yet. These options make flying feel like a luxury experience, much like it was viewed more than 50 years ago. That might be all the motivation people need to take to the skies once again.

Article written by technology journalist Emily Newton. She is Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized, an online magazine exploring the latest innovations.

Featured image courtesy: Yasava