Aircraft cabin design has been fundamentally the same for years; a set of seats facing forward in a highly regulated arrangement. In a world in which everything is becoming customisable, shouldn’t our expectations be that cabins adapt to customer needs?
At Airbus, we believe it is a part of the flying experience that is open for disruption, so A³, our Silicon Valley innovation outpost, has come up with Transpose; a project to develop cabin modules that can be swiftly switched in and out of large commercial aircraft.
We want to simplify the process of changing a cabin, while at the same time offering passengers a much wider choice of experiences in the air — overnight fliers could book a bed in a hotel-style cabin that is slotted straight into the plane or a professional sports team could benefit from in-flight training facilities.
Learning to fly again
Starting in Q2 last year, the Transpose team — led by A³ project executive Jason Chua — went back to basics to research what it is that people are looking for when they plan a trip, as well as the way they feel and behave during a commercial flight.
Alongside research with Neon Black Design, a human-centered design firm, on customer experience across hospitality and transportation, the Transpose team conducted a series of experiments with Nielsen Consumer Neuroscience that tracked passenger stress and attention levels during flight experiences.
In January this year, to test how a modular cabin would actually work and to understand how passengers interact with the interior of an aircraft, we also simulated a four-hour flight from “takeoff” to “landing” in a low-fidelity full-scale prototype passenger cabin including a spa, a restaurant, and a game room in an historic airplane hangar at San Francisco’s Crissy Field.
The result was that we were able to build several prototypes to further our understanding of the pivotal questions: what do people want when they fly, and how can the industry build profitable businesses that fulfil these desires.
“What we discovered was that passengers want more choice and personalisation when they travel,” Chua says, adding that market trends point to these factors being smart for business as well.
“Brands that offer deeper, more authentic experiences — Airbnb for example — are rapidly taking over formerly traditional industries. We also found that the aircraft is a place where experiences and emotions are heightened, creating large opportunities for Airbus and our customers to deliver memorable and impactful offerings.”
In addition to the research and initial real-life passenger test, we undertook some financial modelling work in which we rigorously quantified the value of cabin flexibility — being able to truly match the cabin configuration with real-time market demand.
Having analysed nearly one million lines of historical aircraft configuration and booking data, we discovered that even if airlines only use modules to dynamically resize their business class cabins, they could add upwards of five percentage points to their gross margin.
And this improvement did not take into account the likely significant upside to this figure that a modular cabin enables through new types of passenger experiences and brand partnerships.
Disruption through data
The Transpose team crunched through a lot of data to develop new cabin modules and new ways of working.
“Our whole process — from project formulation to execution — has been guided by data. We constructed a data-rich argument around the technical and economic viability of Transpose that resulted in the project being kicked off last year, and we’ve continuously iterated upon these models throughout the project,” Chua explains.
“As we’ve built the Transpose architecture, we’ve also created an architecture that will enable us to continuously improve the offering through data. Our platform analytics system will help us understand what sorts of modules perform best on which routes, enabling a new layer of insight previously unavailable to the industry.”
Data is only part of the picture, how people respond in the real world is also vital. Prototype modules allow us to demonstrate how flexible modules will work in practice. They also give us valuable qualitative feedback on what people are prepared to pay for these features.
One recent demonstration was a “flying gym” module in partnership with Reebok and Peloton. Displayed at Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport last May, the life-size cabin featured workout equipment including a row of Peloton bikes. Reaction to the display was enthusiastic to say the least, with people tweeting that they were thrilled at the idea of being able to work out in the air. Chua says preliminary analysis of a survey of 684 passengers that experienced this fitness module indicated a willingness to pay a 23% fare premium in order to access novel experiences like this one.
Photo credit: Transpose
The latest test of our real-size cabin modules took place on June 4 at our full-scale mockup 330 in San Jose. The higher resolution four-hour simulated flight involved 108 passengers and six airline-trained cabin crew and allowed to collect valuable feedback on what passengers liked and didn’t like, how they interacted with the modules and whether or not they would be willing to pay for it.
Photo credit: Transpose
Transpose has sought to crowdsource inspiration for new modules, whether at the display sites or via Twitter. Some suggestions from the public have been “overly exotic”, according to Chua, who says concepts such as bowling alleys and swimming pools were not really feasible or practical.
“It was important to us that the modules we built and tested were near-term feasible, meaning that they had a reasonable seating density and did not rely on overly exotic passenger accommodations,” he says.
“Some of the modules we chose were in part driven by engineering test requirements — the restaurant we designed is also a system-interfaces stress test — and others like a sleeping area, family spaces and work lounges were driven by passenger feedback and strong business arguments.”
While the first test set of modules has been defined and built already, there are many more tests planned in the coming months as we want to further hear from brands, passengers and airlines as to what they want to see in flight. One intriguing suggestion we received via Twitter is a wheelchair-accessible module to make commercial flight more accessible to physically disabled passengers.
Of course, Transpose has to be compatible with existing airport operations and infrastructure so it can enter into service with minimal issues. But its flexibility also offers airlines a chance to optimise traditional business models, for instance by adapting their existing cabins to match market demand e.g. adding more premium seats when first class is oversold.
Photo credit: Transpose
It also creates the potential to forge new partnerships and so drive new revenue streams because modules can be built and customised by brand partners outside of an aircraft — for example, a movie studio could sponsor a spaceship-themed module for the latest sci-fi blockbuster or a beer brand could sponsor a sports bar.
Changing the mindset
While the “overly exotic” module may not be on the menu for commercial flight, Chua says that the constraints of safety and feasibility — an aircraft cabin must be able to fly, provide oxygen, etc. — are not the only engineering and design challenges facing Transpose.
As important is overcoming the current attitude to the lifecycle of an aircraft, he says: “The whole industry is used to having an aircraft fly with little to no change for 20-30 years at a time; getting beyond that mindset is the biggest challenge in our project.
“Our engineering team is looking to Silicon Valley technical precedents to overcome some of these challenges. Whether it’s drawing upon server rack network topology as we design our module data and power architecture, or being inspired by the power of big data as we craft new Transpose-enabled platform analytics business lines, we’re ensuring that the ‘Silicon Valley innovation’ we bring to the industry is not just skin deep.”
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