Op-Ed: Reimagining Economy Class Will Bring Passengers Back, Says RedCabin CEO

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Monica Wick

In this instalment of Expert Opinions, APEX Media’s Op-Ed series, Monica Wick, CEO of aviation summit series RedCabin, returns with a new piece about the importance of elevating the economy-class experience to woo leisure travelers. This cohort may emerge as the most important customer segment once the pandemic subsides and travel ramps up.

As vaccination programs are rolled out and some travel restrictions are tentatively lifted, current predictions suggest leisure travelers will return to the skies first and drive the aviation industry’s initial recovery in 2021.

Most of these passengers will likely be flying in economy class, where typically passenger density is high and ticket costs are low. With some travelers anxious to step back onboard, using this time to reimagine the economy-class cabin could be the catalyst our industry needs to encourage passengers back to the skies.

Evolution vs. Revolution

During the last few decades, economy cabins have largely remained the same. The proliferation of low-cost carriers has seen the market become driven by price, and small margins have made it difficult to justify innovation on a grand scale, especially when passenger numbers were increasing year-over-year prior to the pandemic.

That is not to say the economy cabin has not evolved during that time. Many new cabin innovations have come to market, from headrests with improved head and neck support to the introduction of antimicrobial materials and inclusive lavatories. Each idea represents an incremental step forward.

But as we look beyond the pandemic, what do we want the future economy-class experience to be like? And how can we create it?

To illustrate the technical challenge: economy class seating has 10 times less space and 12 times less weight allowance than in first class. Economy products are also usually restricted to between three and five square feet of space in the cabin. But as more long-range single-aisle aircraft come into service, and new technologies and materials emerge, there is a real opportunity for a new wave of cabin innovations to be introduced to the onboard experience. Innovation will set the bar for the next generation of passengers in three core areas: hygiene, privacy and comfort.

A Blank Canvas

New aircraft types create space for new ideas. While airlines already operate stringent cabin sanitization routines, privacy and comfort are areas of the cabin that can be enhanced.

For instance, the notion of ‘cocooning’ passengers has long been a key design principle behind business-class cabins – one which takes on extra relevance in a post-COVID-19 world. Divider screens, curved seat shrouds and suite doors are commonplace, so the logical next step is to build on this and feed these ideas into the back of the plane.

When many passengers think of an economy-class cabin, compromise – and not comfort – may be the first word that comes to mind. For some passengers, comfort will always mean a lie-flat bed. But for others, it means freedom and flexibility to use personal space in their own way.

The good news is that the tide is turning, and in the last 12 months several new ideas – born out of collaboration – have come to the fore that could radically enhance both privacy and comfort in economy. The Interspace Seat by New Territory and Safran, as well as the Aurora Borealis (A/B) seatback from Sekisui Kydex, TrendWorks and Rollon, are proof that more transformative ideas can make it from concept to reality.

Collaborate to Innovate

The willingness of all parts of our industry to work together to bring about change has been one of the positive things to come out of the pandemic. If we can keep this collaborative mindset alive and harness it to its full potential – putting aside competitive advantage at times – we can enhance air travel for all.

History proves that creating a revolution in economy class takes more than just a single, radical idea. It will take honesty, partnerships, knowledge sharing and a determination to work across multiple industries to get it done.

Aviation is full of creative and resilient pioneers, and I have been incredibly fortunate to witness first-hand the amazing things that can be achieved when we all pull together, especially in the last year. While allowing passengers to fly again will ultimately depend on governments around the world, giving them a reason to want to get back on a plane is our challenge. And we must embrace it.

Read Monica’s previous Op-Ed.

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