Trading Spaces: Could Modular Aircraft Cabins Allow Airlines to Swap More Than Just Seats?


    Image: A3
    Image: A3

    APEX Insight: Modular aircraft cabin designs ensure that seats aren’t the only furnishings being swapped on board. Proponents say swappable aircraft interiors could cut reconfiguration time for airlines from several weeks to mere minutes. Airbus-owned Silicon Valley startup A³ and TU Delft are two of the companies trailblazing this radical approach to aircraft cabin design.

    Seven to 10 years. That’s the average life span of an aircraft cabin. Outdated upholstery, narrow windows and overhead screens are evidence of the regulatory and economic constraints faced by airlines when it comes to updating aircraft interiors. “You might be surprised how difficult it is to change aircraft cabin layouts,” says Jason Chua, a project executive of Airbus-owned Silicon Valley startup A³. “Even moving a bathroom forward or backward a few feet can kick off extensive structural engineering and testing work.” Chua leads A³’s Transpose project on swappable aircraft interiors, which he claims can curtail reconfiguration time from several weeks to mere minutes.

    “The idea of modular aircraft is not new,” says Chua, adding that cabin modules already exist in the form of freighters. Like cargo containers, Transpose capsules, which may someday house cafés, spas and hotel pods, could be easily switched in and out of aircraft. He cites the long-haul train as another analog: “Dining cars and sleeper cars are good examples of how passengers can utilize different spaces at different times over the course of a journey, while still remaining space-efficient.” Chua assures that a modular approach to aircraft interiors can be economically viable, too. “Transpose is also about the complete business case: making sure airlines, manufacturers, brands and passengers all benefit from a modular cabin.”

    Curated Units and Branded Services

    In addition to the possibility of more diversified passenger experiences, Transpose presents a new revenue stream to airlines. Advertisers and businesses could curate entire units, equip them with branded services and products, or even use the space to conduct trials of new concepts with sample demographics. Capsule gyms, shops and restaurants aren’t pie in the sky, insists Chua. A mock-up of at least one such module will be deployed in a public space by the end of the year.

    Flexibility figured just as prominently in A³’s development process as it did in the eventual design of Transpose. Adopting a multidisciplinary approach to the problem of cabin interiors gave way to collaborations with companies outside of the Airbus Group: NK Labs and Motivo Engineering are providing engineering and prototyping expertise, New Territory is crafting a cohesive design language and Nielsen Consumer Neuroscience is studying passengers’ reactions to unprecedented in-flight environments.

    Even Faster Furnishings?

    While hopeful about the prospects presented by Transpose, Peter Vink, professor of Environmental Ergonomics and head of TU Delft’s Design Engineering department, a leading tech incubator, thinks the design could go a step further. “The modularity should be applied during the flight, as well, to facilitate the different activities.”

    Vink provides examples of adaptive cabin spaces developed by TU Delft, which received recognition at last year’s Crystal Cabin Award. Modulair, a galley that can be downsized to provide additional seating, offers airlines the versatility to amend cabin space according to their short- and long-haul needs. And FiO, another design, enables a business-class bar to be transformed into a crew working area during flight. “The environment is better dedicated to [two] situations – bar or lounge for passengers and work area for crew – and can be changed very quickly,” says Vink.

    Be it A³’s branded capsules or TU Delft’s quick-change furnishings, passengers’ hunger for increased customization is being met with inventive designs. And according to Chua, airlines and manufacturers are taking notice. “It’s clear that there’s an appetite for more choice and customization among all stakeholders that are helping to shape commercial flight.”

    Trading Spaces was originally published in the 7.2 April/May issue of APEX Experience magazine.