A Plane of One’s Own: Introducing Inclusive Design on Commercial Aircraft


Image: Getty Images

How would aircraft interiors be different if more women were involved in the design process?

The Volvo Your Concept Car (YCC) is anything but average. As its gull-wing doors lift open, the doorsill rotates and the driver’s seat automatically slides back for easy ingress. Put your key on the console, and the seat, steering wheel, pedals and headrest automatically adjust to your preferences. With gear levers relocated next to the steering wheel, you can slip your handbag and gadgets into the center console as smoothly as you’ll slide into that parking spot later with Autopark on. Wearing heels and a ponytail today? No problem. A pump-primed heel rest and up-do-ready headrest groove can be altered so they won’t cramp your style.

The Volvo YCC was the first car designed by women, for women. When it was unveiled at the Geneva International Motor Show in Switzerland in 2004, it was viewed as something of a novelty. Its sealed hood raised more than a few eyebrows. And other low-maintenance features, such as its capless gas valve and dirt-resistant paint job, were easy targets for those keen to overwrite ingenuity as feminine frivolity. The car’s park-assist feature, which at the time was still a relatively new concept, read to some as a ready-made punch line.

But the stakes were hardly trivial. Volvo had recognized that there was a growing gulf between the people who made cars  and the people who bought them. Over half the car company’s buyers in the US were women, yet 80 percent of car designers were men. Almost 10 years after development began on the Volvo YCC, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration mandated for the first time that female crash test dummies be used in safety tests.

The automotive industry was starting to reckon that male-dominated design contained androcentric biases. And those biases don’t only affect the bottom line: Female drivers are 47 percent more likely to be seriously injured than male drivers in comparable collisions. “I think the Volvo YCC was meant as a wake-up call,” says Patricia Moore, an internationally renowned pioneer of universal design whose clients have included Boeing and Canadair. “Not just for men, but for business structures everywhere.”

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Above Averages

It’s tempting to wonder what the same exercise would look like with an airplane. Much like the automotive industry, the aerospace world continues to be male-dominated. Boeing hired its first woman engineer in 1917, but by the 1970s, only two to three percent of engineers were women. In 2017, only 17.2 percent of Airbus employees around the world were women. And while commercial aviation came of age when travelers were typically men, nowadays the demographics are pretty evenly split along gender lines.

“I think the aircraft interior would be much different if more women were involved during the design process in history,” says Sanne Lehmann, a cabin interiors consultant, flight attendant and member of the Hamburg Aviation WoMen group. Lehmann points to the cockpit as an example of where “the structures and  way of working are definitely male.” Men and women differ physically, especially when it comes to size and strength. But there are cognitive differences, too. And in the cockpit, where physical and technical demands are heightened, gender bias in design is more apparent.

“The aircraft interior would be much different if more women were involved during the design process in history.” – Sanne Lehmann, cabin interiors consultant

The driver’s seat in the commercial cockpit, the car or even the office has traditionally been based on military anthropometrics. In the United States, the army recognized the need for standardization, and accordingly, averages became the law of the land and skies. Soldiers were measured en masse to create standard sizes for uniforms, and cockpits were made to the measure of the average male pilot’s height, weight, arm length and other dimensions.

But by the late 1940s, the US Air Force had more-sophisticated aircraft, more pilots and a higher death rate. Researchers brought in to investigate the issue found that pilots were being underserved by average-sized cockpits. The one-size-fits-all design wasn’t a perfect fit for any of the 4,000 pilots they measured. This revelation led to the adoption of ergonomic design features such as adjustable seats and pedals, and consideration for eye reference indicators – all of which continue to be in use in commercial cockpits.

Humans had become a factor. But a legacy of physically restrictive design meant the human factor was still predominantly male. Despite the added modularity, several studies have shown that the location of controls on the flight deck still disadvantages women and smaller-statured men. Fortunately, as more women get their stripes, improvements continue to be made. “In recent years, the continued rise in the numbers of female pilots has led to equally more inclusive anthropometric and biomechanical accommodations for flight crews,” Moore says.

Rank and Percentile

Modular features have helped to universalize cockpit design, but they are harder to incorporate into the restricted confines of economy cabins. This leaves passengers struggling to claim their space and modify it on their own terms. “Some people bring little neck pillows and pillows for their lower backs. They look like Sherpas coming on board with all this kit,” Moore says. Others might adjust their position by reclining or stretching their legs. “But as a micro-level adjustment is made in one area, there is usually a domino effect that impacts another area of the cabin,” explains Carrie McEwan, senior human factors specialist with Teague, a Seattle-based design consultancy.

Most economy-class seats are made to accommodate a spectrum that encompasses the fifth percentile female through to the ninety-fifth percentile male. In other words, seats are made to be large enough for all but five percent of men and, in theory, all women. But men and women are not proportioned equally. In fact, studies showing differences between gender and body discomfort in economy-class seats found that female respondents experienced more upper-body discomfort, while men reported more lower-body discomfort.

“The goal of universality: to make sure that everybody is equal.” – Patricia Moore, Universal Design Pioneer

The assumption that a seat designed for a ninety-fifth percentile man will fit most women is not necessarily correct, especially when it comes to hip breadth. The widely used Civilian American and European Surface Anthropometry Resource survey shows North American women in the ninety-fifth percentile category have a hip breadth of 19.72 inches, versus 17.15 inches for North American men. According to data from SeatGuru.com, short-haul economy seat widths range from 15.9 to 20.2 inches. Creating user-friendly seats for every shape and size is not an easy task. “It’s a design nightmare,” Moore says. “But that’s also the goal of universality: to make sure that everybody is equal. It’s really equity by design.”

A Woman’s Plane

On an airplane made by women, seats would probably have footrests to accommodate shorter people. “And we’d also ideally reconfigure seating to have environmental controls that are more specific to the seat and less to the ceiling,” Moore says. Family seating, like the rail industry format, might be more common, too.

Lavatories would be designed to better accommodate the different needs of men and women. McEwan says that Teague has recently conducted multiple studies on use scenarios that consider how women and men might use the bathroom differently from the perspectives of grooming, desired amenities and lighting. One of those amenities, Moore suggests, might be a fold-down changing table.

Female designers would also like to have better addressed the issue of smell in the cabin, Sanne Lehmann says, adding that this is “something that would be much further in development than it is right now.” Indeed, several studies have found that women have a heightened sense of smell compared to men. In 2014, researchers at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil found that women have double the amount of neurons related to smell than men do.

Overhead bins are another cabin element female designers might have tackled differently. “These bins are sometimes very hard to operate, especially for smaller flight attendants,” Lehmann says. Over the years, modifications have been made to accommodate size differences. There are now lift-assistance units, seats with built-in steps for better access and mirrors inside the bins for easier viewing. “There are ‘helpers’ like these all around the cabin,” she says.

Beyond Measure

While consulting on the Volvo YCC project, Marti Barletta, an expert on female consumer patterns, remarked, “If you meet the expectations of women, you exceed the expectations of men.” The statement is as bold as it is grand, and while it may not always be true, it touches on an inclusive design philosophy that’s been gaining traction: Design for one, extend to all. In other words, design first for edge-case scenarios, rather than the so-called average user, and apply broadly.

Take sidewalk curb ramps, for instance. They were first designed to make urban areas more accessible for wheelchair users. But the ramps benefited several users, including parents with strollers, travelers with wheeled-bags, and everything else that rolls. Typewriters, telephones, straws and e-mail are all products of edge-case design thinking.

Gender is an important and historically overlooked part of the design equation when it comes to vehicular design. But it’s only part of the equation. “Having a diverse design team that can empathize with a wide variety of scenarios is important when developing new cabin products,” McEwan says. “This extends not just across genders, but also age and cultures.” For Lehmann, another key factor is the clash between how engineers think of the cabin in technical terms and how flight attendants operate in the space in a more empathic manner.

Design for women does not require an all-women design team. “But I do think, as we’ve added women, we’ve seen a better outcome when it comes to inclusivity,” Moore says. “People might say, in [1950s] vernacular, ‘Oh, that’s the feminine touch.’ Well, what’s wrong with that?”

“A Plane of One’s Own” was originally published in the 9.2 April/May issue of APEX Experience magazine.