Blue-sky thinking: the future of aircraft interiors


Blue-sky thinking: the future of aircraft interiors

There are many factors transforming today’s on-board flying experience. John Tighe, Design Director at transport and hospitality design specialist JPA Design, examines what we – the passengers of the future – can expect

Since British Airways introduced the world’s first fully flat bed seat in its first-class cabin in 1995, aircraft interior designers have raced to keep up with and outdo the competition. They have found that, in an increasingly crowded market, innovation is the only way to distinguish a brand.

The last two decades have seen dramatic growth in the aviation industry. In the mid-1990s, more than 500 commercial aircraft were delivered each year worldwide; by 2013 annual deliveries had crossed 1,500. These deliveries included a wave of new aircraft models, which provided the opportunity to radically transform aircraft interiors.

Most notably, the A380, which had its maiden commercial flight in October 2007 with Singapore Airlines, brought with it the first on-board showers and private suites, introducing the concept of ultra-premium travel.

Aircraft interiors: improving the customer experience

In the past, the interior canvas was considered little more than an advert for a carrier’s brand colours. Today, passenger comfort is key. The result is a shift in focus from functional engineering to user experience, and the role of the designer has come to the fore.

Aircraft interiors are selected as either an off-the-shelf package or a customised setup, and design consultants work with the aircraft manufacturers, component suppliers and airlines to enhance the functionality and aesthetics of the interiors in both cases.

Most attention and investment is directed to the user experience in first and business class, as this is where most airlines make around two thirds of their revenue. And seats have continued to be the significant area of innovation. Studies have shown the more pleased a passenger is with their seat, the more highly they rate the rest of the cabin, and even the on-screen entertainment.

Why selling sleep is more important than ever

Two decades ago, there were only a handful of certified seat designs for planes. Today there are more than a dozen different basic designs in service. Singapore Airlines recently introduced the innovative monocoque seat (shown above), which uses a carbon fibre composite shell rather than metal as the main support, freeing up more space for baggage stowage. The common denominator in modern seat design is comfort, ergonomics and well-being.

A fully reclining seat, which forms a full flat bed, is no longer a unique selling point. Instead, airlines looking for an extra edge focus on providing a higher quality of sleep in their first or business-class cabins. Virgin Atlantic, for example, boasts that it has the longest flat beds in any business class cabin.

With many people now measuring the quality of their sleep, a new dawn of much more rigorous comfort testing and consumer trials is sweeping into the aviation industry Smart fitness devices show a person’s sleep duration and depth, providing new levels of insight for the aviation sector, as well as the hotel industry, and helping to inform designs. It is also making customers more aware of the service they are receiving and how it compares with other airlines. Comfort is becoming as important a consideration as price, route and time of travel.

Changing times: passenger comfort above cost

Even outside first and business class, passengers are drifting away from being purely price conscious, and demanding greater comfort. They are showing an increased willingness to pay more for extra legroom, inflight entertainment and refreshments, which has led to the emergence of the premium-economy concept.

Value carrier flydubai has gone one step further and introduced a business class cabin with flat beds on its new Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft (shown above). Its route network was recently integrated with that of its sister airline Emirates, and the aim is to offer both value and quality so that premium class passengers transferring from Emirates flights can enjoy a similarly high quality experience.

JPA designed the interior for flydubai’s new fleet of aircraft. Since fast turnaround times are vital to the carrier’s business model, the cabin design included pragmatic considerations such as designing the seat areas in a way that makes them easy to clean and makes people less likely to leave their belongings behind. From an aesthetical standpoint, the monitors and literature pockets were also integrated into the Economy class bulkhead to provide a sleek and easy to maintain finish, rather than bolt them on, as is usually the case.

After two decades of momentous progress in aircraft interior design, looking ahead, it is expected that there will be fewer opportunities for radical change and that any developments will be increasingly subtle. The on-board double bed has already arrived, along with the art-filled lobby lounge and Wi-Fi-connected cabins.

More design work in the near future will involve retrofits, rather than new ‘line fit’ aircraft. And the innovations will be as much the product of behavioural research as engineering. Design consultants regularly observe passenger behaviours to inform and evolve their designs.

Why ambient lighting and colour selection is key

Greater consideration is now being given to the selection of colours, lighting and materials used as understanding grows about the psychological impact they have on passengers. Mood lighting is already widely used in the aviation industry. It is a simple yet effective tool that can help passengers alleviate the effects of jet lag, enabling their body clocks to find their rhythm for the next destination.

The idea of mood lighting onboard aircraft evolved from studies into the impact of light in the home on people’s mental wellbeing. We have a whole team dedicated to working with colours, materials and finishes and it follows trends in the wider interior design industry.

Colours also influence how a passenger feels. Many airlines select blue for their seats as the colour is believed to evoke calmness. Dark colours have likewise been shown to make a space feel less claustrophobic. In the same way that people today make greater use of textures when furnishing their homes, the aviation industry is currently looking closely at different fabrics and textures and how they can add to passenger comfort, while also having a secondary function of absorbing sounds.

The use of fabrics on lateral walls is being considered for premium cabins, and the way fabric interacts with lighting is being explored. The challenge is the fabrics need to be as lightweight as possible to meet the other important design criteria of saving fuel. Designers focus on modifications that make the most difference to passengers, but still have to provide value to airlines.

Improved bathroom layout and greater compartment capacity

One area where passengers can expect to see change is in the design of toilet facilities. According to research, 1 in 10 passengers have a phobia of germs and are reluctant to use on-board bathrooms. As a result, designers are looking to improve the layout of toilet facilities to make them easier to clean. They are also looking into smart materials embedded with surface treatments to kill germs, and the potential for employing ultra violet lighting, which has germ-killing capacity. Efforts are also underway to improve access for less mobile and elderly passengers. The toilet facilities are already much improved in the latest aircraft models, so this is an area of focus for retrofits of older planes.

Increasing the capacity of overhead luggage compartments is another area receiving great attention, along with the possibility for height differentiation of passengers, which would free up more room. There are also studies into temperature and humidity on-board. While these changes will not have a visible impact, they will do much to improve passenger comfort and wellbeing across all cabins. Dry nose, throat, eyes and skin are common complaints of passengers; ventilation levels also influence disease transmission.

A more ambitious change in the offing concerns windows. Last year, Emirates began trialling virtual windows in its first-class cabin, whereby images are projected in from outside the plane using fibre optic cameras. The removal of all windows would make planes lighter and faster and would eliminate the structural weakness in the fuselage. Any wider adoption of windowless aircraft by the industry, however, would need to address the potential issue of claustrophobia among passengers.

Virtual reality is also tipped to further shake-up the inflight entertainment market, which, thanks to the advent of on-board Wi-Fi, is evolving rapidly. Many passengers now prefer to watch their own entertainment on personal mobile devices. For some airlines, this is expected to lead to the demise in the not too distant future of seat-back screens, which each cost many thousands of dollars to install. Some airlines are already trialling virtual reality headsets and content streaming entertainment apps that run on personal or airline-owned devices. Airlines are keen to embrace the tech revolution as they stand to gain considerably from hardware and weight savings, while also removing the costs associated with maintaining the seat-back based system. Personal devices and onboard connectivity will be among the topics discussed at the Inflight Middle East workshop during Aircraft Interiors Middle East.

As for the seats, the next frontier is likely to be fully flat beds that can be used during taxi, take-off and landing. A certified design has yet to be delivered, but it would dramatically improve the customer experience.

Co-located with MRO Middle East, Aircraft Interiors Middle East returns to Dubai World Trade Centre from 11-12 February.


  • Interior Design
  • Innovation