HAMBURG — Imagine a place where every single aspect of an airplane’s inside was on display and up for sale: From seats to fasteners, plastic mouldings to satellite arrays. Put it all in Hamburg, Germany, spread it out over seven halls, and call it Aircraft Interiors Expo 2014.
Industry firms large and small (and tiny) all brought their newest, latest, and greatest to this year’s show, hoping to capture the interest of airlines in this multi-billion dollar industry. Throughout the show, there were a few main recurring themes that have been the constant theme in the industry for a few years now. As Data Research Manager for Routehappy.com, it was my job to find the most interesting trends.
More Seats In Economy, Less Space, Few But Important Innovations
Flying economy in the modern age has gotten to the point where 32″ pitch is a luxury, and 30″ pitch is the new norm. Slimline seats are the new cool, and airlines are gobbling these up faster than vendors can manufacture them. Reduced seat pitch, width, and cushioning are coming to an airplane near you, but it isn’t all bad.
Seat manufacturer ACRO has managed to develop a seat with so much space carved out of it around the knees that a configuration of 29″ inches feels more like 32″ to the passenger. That may not sound like much, but it is the difference between being horribly uncomfortable and content for a short flight. The seats come with a positively tiny but super strong tray table which is barely wide enough to support an iPad. ACRO will start delivering these seats to Spirit Airlines for five retrofitted Airbus A319s and new A320 and A321 deliveries in 2015.
One of the largest seat manufactures, Recaro, showed us that even the smallest of changes to their seats can have a large impact. We’ve all seen the photo showing various “innovative” ways passengers set up their own entertainment devices in economy, but Recaro has come up with a simple, yet ingenious solution to the problem.
With the addition of a few plastic bits, the seat itself becomes the perfect tablet holder in an increasingly bring-your-own-entertainment-device world. This simple innovation allows passengers to free up their tray table and position their tablet at a comfortable eye level. The device held my 10” iPad with ease, but it did look like it would work for anything smaller.
One innovation for the economy space, sadly, may never actually see the inside of any aircraft cabin. The Thompson Aero Cozy Suite is a brilliant economy seating solution which actually staggers each row so that passengers are slightly set back from one another.
The “suite” style seats create a feeling of added privacy and personal space, but actually use nearly the same space needed for traditional seats. Although the seats are a radical departure from the normal seat design, they were quite comfortable even with three people in the row. Unfortunately, after quite a bit of time on the market, no airline has ordered this innovative seat.
Front of The Plane
The economy cabin isn’t the only section of the aircraft that airlines are looking to cram more passengers into the same amount of space. One seat model from Airbus subsidiary Sogerma stood out as the most innovative, but also the most controversial solution. The seat pair is angled in toward each other, which is nothing new.
What is new, however, is that the two seats transform into a layered lie-flat bed. In essence, the feet of one passenger end up resting on a platform on top of the adjacent passenger. This saves a bit of width per seat without compromising comfort, but it sure does look strange. I tried the seat and found it to be comfortable, so this will be one to keep an eye out for in the future.
Thompson Aero also had production samples of JetBlue’s upcoming Mint cabin seats on display, and I can tell you they are every bit as comfortable as they look. The seats feature a massage function, which actually comes in the form of expanding lumbar support instead of the traditional vibrate function, which was a nice surprise.
Also surprising was the tethered remote with the JetBlue logo on it, featuring play, pause, and fast forward symbols. JetBlue currently does not feature video on demand, and hasn’t said whether it is coming to Mint, so this could be a sign that this feature is coming to its A321s with Mint configuration. If JetBlue does opt to go with AVOD, this may just boost its Routehappy Happiness score a bit.
In the rest of the business class space, seats seem to be getting larger and more complex, further widening the gap between business/first class and economy. Seats such as the Zodiac Aerospace Aura don’t even deserve to be called a seat, but rather a living room.
I’m fairly certain some apartments in Manhattan are smaller than these luxurious devices. Thankfully, not everything being shown was an enormous first class seat or tiny economy seat. The Sogerma Celeste business class narrowbody and premium economy narrowbody seat was quite different from traditional seats. The seat design is unlike anything else I have seen, and it was surprisingly comfortable.
More, Better Connectivity
More so than any single other category, the in-flight connectivity sector was breaking news left and right, with Gogo stealing the show. Passengers have begun to expect their next flight to be WiFi enabled, and we are just now getting to the point where the industry is coming up with new and creative technologies to meet the demand.
On day one of the show, Gogo came out early with guns blazing, announcing their newest product called 2Ku. Gogo is looking to deliver even more bandwidth to each airplane by mounting two ThinKom antennas under one radome, promising speeds of up to 70Mbps to each aircraft, and 100Mbps once next generation satellites are launched.
Traditional Ku antennas are quite bulky, but the 2Ku system uses the latest generation of thin antennas, slimming off several inches. That may not sound like much, but a thinner profile means reduced aerodynamic drag which means less fuel burn. 2Ku will launch in mid-2015 and Japan Airlines is slated to “be among the first” airlines trial the technology.
In addition to 2Ku, Gogo also announced that WiFi would finally be coming to the Great White North, as Air Canada signed a deal to outfit their entire North American fleet with Gogo’s air-to-ground service. The new service will be coming to the carrier’s Airbus A319, A320, A321, Embraer E190 and E175, as well as the CRJ700, with 29 aircraft online in 2014 and the rest by the end of 2015. Air Canada will also test 2Ku and Global Xpress for widebody aircraft in 2015.
Finally, the in-flight entertainment (IFE) industry is starting to catch up to the level of technology passengers use every day with their iPads and phones. Most current IFE systems are clunky, unresponsive, and downright poorly designed. New systems from a wide array of companies, however, is about to bring IFE into the 21st century.
Panasonic is the 800 pound gorilla in the room – you can spot their eX2 system in a good percentage of aircraft worldwide. State of the art built-in systems from Lumexis, Thales, Zodiac, and Rockwell Collins are bringing responsive capacitive screens, multitasking, “second screen” support, and a multitude of new features to the sky. Soon enough, that annoying “reboot penguin” should be a thing of the past.
For airlines that don’t want a full blown IFE system, streaming systems are being unveiled left and right. More and more firms are bringing streaming content to the cabin, such as Lufthansa’s BoardConnect system, Gogo’s Vision product, Global Eagle’s WISE, in addition to little firms that are sticking wireless access points in galley carts and other odd places.
The general trend we are seeing in economy is smaller seats, more “efficient” seats, but the technology to distract from the discomfort is finally catching up to the 21st century. Faster and more reliable WiFi, in-flight entertainment coming to airlines that could never have afforded it in the part, and innovative new seating configurations are finally a reality. Meanwhile, at the front of the plane, the gap between economy and business/first class grows even larger.