Is it real, or is it Memorex? Boeing's Customer Experience Center brings a 787 cabin to a building. Photo: Bernie Leighton

SEATTLE — Spending millions if not billions of dollars is always easier when its someone else’s money. Thing is, corporations have a fiduciary duty to not misspend their shareholder’s investments regardless of how enticing it may seem.

When purchasing a new aircraft for an airline’s fleet, obviously customers look at operating economics, maintenance costs, and delivery slot availability – but Boeing has another trick up their sleeves to help sell the harder to quantify parts of their aviation experience.

The trick

Tucked away near the former Longacres racetrack in Renton, Washington – near an industrial bakery in fact – Boeing has their secret sauce for winning orders and then; in a one-two punch a facility that makes it easier than ever for Boeing to interface with their interior vendors and customers in one roof.

Let’s start with the Customer Experience Center. Come November of this year (2017 for those reading in the future) it will have been open 12 years. It was a representation of, in the words of Kent Craver, a “shift change:” in how Boeing dealt with airlines and passenger experience.


Is it real, or is it Memorex? Boeing’s Customer Experience Center brings a 787 cabin to a building. Photo: Bernie Leighton

Around the time of the Sonic Cruiser, Boeing began to realize that there was more to cabin design than the placement of monuments and the selection of seats and colors – they wanted to incorporate a psychological and ergonomic approach into the plane. It makes sense, even in Boeing’s opinion the Sonic Cruiser was a fantastic and exciting looking airliner, they had to do it justice on the inside as well as out.

When the Sonic Cruiser morphed into the 7E7, and finally the 787 we know today – Boeing kept working on their new methodology of improving cabin design alongside their sixty-five-year partner Teague.

During their research, they developed, for lack of anything better to describe it as – their “secret sauce” for design. They are the so-called unarticulated passenger needs. Needs so secret they are not patented. For their security, they are trade-secrets and less than ten people within Boeing know, and they are – again in the words of paxex guru Kent Craver “why you can look at the Sky Interior on a 737 and say ‘oh, that’s nice!'”

Boeing’s Passenger Experience Wizard Kent Craver.

While a mockup does not translate the full experience of the meeting of these unarticulated needs, the customer experience center is largely pre-sale. Post sale work, at least for the 737 is done down the street. Boeing alluded to the fact there may be a similar center in the works for their widebodies sooner or later. If they can see value in it, that is.

For aircraft like the current 777, the relationships with the customers and the suppliers is so mature – there’s not a large benefit from opening a configuration center specifically for it.

Back to where I was standing, however, in the Customer Experience Center. While it does have an on-site kitchen and the capability to handle up to fifteen hundred banquet patrons – it is what lies behind the unassuming walls with helpful, and familiar, numeration that really makes this by appointment only facility so unique.

Believe what you want, but there’s a 787 cabin behind those walls. Trust me. Photo: Bernie Leighton

There’s a 1:1 Boeing 787 cabin behind the first doors. This is where we were introduced to Boeing’s cabin “ABCs”. Airlines for people, by design, connected to the sky. Not only is it somewhat catchy, it is a one-sentence summary of Boeing’s design focus.

Nothing goes on a Boeing aircraft just because it’s cool. There’s a lot of qualitative, and quantitative research done by Boeing before you ever see it in the CEC (Customer Experience Center) – some of that research is done in the Passenger Research Center in the Institute of Flight up in Mukilteo.

The windows are a striking feature of the 787 cabin, whether or not they look out at anything. Photo: Bernie Leighton

The first thing that strikes most people about the cabin of the 787 is the windows, Boeing was always talking about them – even before the aircraft entered service, but they’d never say what really made them a hit until after Airbus, or in Boeing parlance “the competition”, had locked down their design.

Until then, the fact that it was not just window height – but window position that made the passengers drawn to the windows remained a trade secret. Boeing rejoiced in the fact they had a hit no one else had come close to. Again, they could not have done it without their research.

Obviously, there are some minor differences between a room with the dimensions of a 787 and reality. For example, a real 787 doesn’t have deceptive mirror at the back of the economy cabin. One can also hear the air conditioning packs and the slight whine of the Hamilton Sundstrand APU.

Other than that – it certainly gets the point across. Much like their other aircraft mock-ups, the 787 cabin features two choices of potential business class seats, premium economy, and varying configurations of Economy.

What seven abreast premium economy looks like relative to eight abreast. Photo: Bernie Leighton

Whilst on the tour we took the opportunity to try out said varying economy configurations ourselves. This is where we began to understand that Boeing sees themselves as a provider of a platform to which the airlines can use to suit their business model.

They have their brand promise and their platform – the airlines then use their Boeing aircraft to deliver their brand promise.

How did we get to this discussion?

Simple, really. As most of you are more than aware – the 787 was designed and marketed as an 8Y aircraft – though only one airline still uses that configuration (JAL). Is this Boeing saying “hey, don’t blame us.” With respect to the rather narrow seats in a 9Y 787. Sort of.

They have a relatively valid defense on top of the fact that they are not the ones flying the planes or trying to earn a profit with them.

According to them, there is a certain entity, I would assume with a large plot of land in Southwestern France, that harps on about a “mythical” eighteen-inch seat width. According to Boeing, there’s nothing in human anthropometry or anatomy that shows that eighteen inches are some sort of golden seat width ratio.

They went on to address the fact that, from their research, at least; people can’t actually tell the difference between half an inch. Boeing would tell you that it’s a perception game.

To use Mr. Craver’s analogy. How does it feel when you get an empty seat next to you in Economy? It’s a victorious time for all. Thing is, the seat width did not change. Merely your perception of the seat width did. Another thing that compounds the feelings of relative claustrophobia are the thickness of the cabin’s sidewalls and their relative straightness.

Look at Boeing’s latest cabins. They all have very flat sidewalls. Flat sidewalls feel taller, more height begets a feeling of greater space. Especially in window seats where there may be more than a mere perception. Don’t believe me? Well, okay.

Within the Boeing 777 mockup there are some cleverly sculpted 330 and A340 cabin walls to show the difference in personal space that interior design can have. These dimensions are, of course, perfect as for a short time Boeing was the largest A340 retailer. Trust me, you can feel the difference.

The grey seats represent the standard layout of a 777, behind it is an A330/A340 cross section. Photo: Bernie Leighton

Lighting, changes in overhead bin architecture, and even changes to the ceiling panels all are worked in to give this appearance. It’s why passengers can walk onto newer aircraft and assume the windows are larger when there has been no change. These are things Boeing has control over, so they make sure to use them – as again as Boeing is clear to emphasize – the seats are something the airline chooses. They are not in the business of telling customers how to run their own.

On the left, you can see Boeing’s Spacebin, on the right is the standard offering. Photo: Bernie Leighton

From the 787 room, we made our way to the 747-8 – where we learned that even with the program in its sunset – the interior changes fooled at least one large 747-400 operating CEO. He insisted, much to his measured-chagrin, that the cabin was at least a food wider than his fleet of 400s. Another fun fact about the 747-8 is the upper deck cabin real-estate was very close to that of the 737-700.

Boeing pitched the idea of a salon on the upper deck of the 747-8. Yes, we had to go up the stairs to get here. Photo: Bernie Leighton

From there, of course, we made our way to the 737 – but it ties so nicely into the actual 737 configuration center down the street – we’ll save that discussion for part 2 of the series when we actually cover that building.

Before attending the tour of the Customer Experience center I was on the fence about what kind of value it added to Boeing or their potential customers. Everyone coming into that room has an intimate familiarity with Boeing products in one way or another – it seemed almost redundant. I was wrong.

There’s a huge value in being able to have a personalized experience inside an environment like that where everything is accurate and on display that could definitely help Boeing gain or maintain customers.