Internal affairs: Aircraft interiors designed for environmental travel

Jon Lawson

For aerospace designers it’s all about managing the flying experience while mitigating environmental damage

Recent protests around the world have highlighted the growing issue of climate change; the involvement of younger members of society has changed the rhetoric and the politics of the green movement are now entering the psyche of the wider population. As eco protests abound, transport, and in particular aviation, has come in for criticism – with airlines, business flyers and the elite use of private jets coming under greater pressure to reduce and offset greenhouse gas emissions.

Whatever your stance, two things are certain: climate change is happening, and people won’t stop flying altogether. It’s the fundamental reality of the necessity for fast international travel, increasing demand due to population growth and a lack of suitable alternatives.

Aviation industry under climate change spotlight

As with other areas of the transportation industry, the airline sector is innovating for change but not at the same pace. Even as each new generation of aircraft is, on average, 20% more fuel-efficient than its predecessor, the aviation industry has a long way to go. In February 2017, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) adopted the first ever global carbon dioxide certification standard for new aircrafts. The standard sets limits to the carbon dioxide emissions from aircrafts in relation to their size and weight. It is projected to save significant quantities of carbon dioxide per aircraft once it comes into effect in 2020.

Passengers are now starting to fully engage with climate change and are putting aviation under the spotlight. They will start to choose airlines that can offer a genuine carbon advantage over others; opening up a clear commercial advantage for these airlines because, if you have to fly, you’ll do it in the most carbon-efficient way possible.

An ambition to be sustainable is influencing how suppliers produce materials, with many now re-using the by-products of their manufacturing processes to reduce waste. This is being informed by a concept called the ‘circular economy’, which is based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems.

Aircraft interiors and their role in sustainable flying

As consultant designers and design engineers to aircraft cabin interior projects, Tangerine’s contribution to the design of the cabin product and customer experience is relatively insignificant to the overall carbon dioxide impact of the planes themselves. However, it can be of influence in one key area; helping to reduce weight with considered material choices and design decisions.

For Tangerine’s creative director, Dan Flashman, weight is a critical factor. He says, “Advances in prepreg carbon fibre, as well as 3D printed metallic parts, offer great potential and are fast being used by seating manufacturers. These new materials bring new mechanical properties, inviting us to totally re-think the status quo to make the best use of them. This has been a catalyst for innovation, especially for the Economy Class seat, where weight and space are so important.”

Material thickness, laminate thickness and weight are really important in how you design for aircrafts. When there are limitations on virtually everything within the cabin, design becomes a bit of a balancing act. Ultimately these limitations mean that aircraft interiors must be designed with out-of-the-box thinking. Customer expectations must be balanced with reducing product weight as additional weight is a lifetime increase because the plane burns more fuel for every flight of its life cycle.

Expectations of aircraft interiors has changed

Alex Loudon, design lead at Tangerine, agrees: “Although humans’ needs haven’t changed much, expectations have altered drastically. However, cabin space and size have pretty much stayed the same. It is a metal tube as it always has been. The challenge is meeting and exceeding these shifting expectations while working within the same dimensions.”

Plane interior designs are a crowded and overworked landscape, so it has become harder and harder to innovate. One area of improvement may be a move away from wide-body jets to more fuel-efficient narrow-body jets for long haul, which in turn will lead to new aircraft carrier interior layouts.

Although the physical space hasn’t changed, the internal landscape has rapidly evolved in recent years with First Class of yesterday becoming the Business Class of today and an expectation of the ‘Super’ First Class cabin emerging on some scheduled airlines. The upside to this is that perhaps the super-rich can be persuaded to ditch their private jets in favour of a more bespoke and private Super First Class experience, thereby reducing carbon dioxide emissions from private jets.

Could Tangerine raise the bar for environmentally friendly aircraft interior design?

Although Economy Class seats are viewed as a commodity by the industry and change is slow to happen, Tangerine is trying to raise the design bar and is committed to innovate where it can. Great design and the use of advanced seating foams are producing thinner, lightweight seats whilst maintaining passenger comfort, giving airlines greater passenger density in Economy Class cabins. Textiles and new construction techniques can also be used to improve ergonomics by providing support and enhancing legroom, but it is not a given and it isn’t easy.

In addition, the company has been radically imagining what potential there is for sleeper areas on board as an extra provision to the traditional Business Class and First Class seats. This would take a massive shift in layout of interiors and would mean quite a few drawbacks in terms of space utilisation, which the firm acknowledges that most airlines wouldn’t be willing to accept. For Economy Class sleepers, the cabin would have to be totally re-imagined– and that’s not going to happen any time soon.

Seating isn’t the only space in the cabin that comes in for attention, as more emphasis is being placed on entryways and galleys.

“It is the opening scene to a brand experience and personalisation,” observes Loudon.

Connecting to the experience economy; airlines are trying to achieve a better balance between ticket price and journey experience, by better catering to onboard passengers with social areas. Ever the playful airline, Virgin Australia’s clever B777 aircraft interior boasts of a Business Class bar, designed by Tangerine, that enables cabin crew to serve passengers face-to-face. An interaction that reinforces the Virgin Australia brand for a customer-facing delivery of service.

Aircraft interiors moving towards minimalistic design

An increased focus on environmental protection is also slowly shifting people’s aesthetic tastes away from heavily upholstered products and materials, to those that are natural and minimalistic. Within aviation interiors, there is a move towards more homely materials that give a softer look and feel. Wood and glass-looking materials make an appearance, creating environments that are being harmonised with furniture elements to encourage a feeling of wellbeing within interior spaces and a greater affinity to nature.

Colour also plays a part, as it is a very low-cost means of totally changing the ambience of a cabin environment. The colour of a cabin interior forms the first impression for many passengers, so it is a critical aspect of design for airlines.

For Japan Airlines’ new bespoke lighting themes onboard its new domestic and international fleet, Tangerine created a series of different lighting designs to support different activities during a flight, as well as special themed lighting reflecting Japan’s seasons and natural landscapes. In spring, the cherry blossom season is reflected by the Sakura theme, with pink and green lights evoking the feel of the annual holiday. 

The importance of low carbon travel that keeps customer experience in mind.

For transportation design in general, it’s not so much about the speed of getting from A to B, but in providing an enhanced passenger experience while being mindful of helping to reduce the environmental impact of developing new transport products and systems.

Although passenger infotainment is currently top of a customer experience manager’s wish list – “Let them watch Netflix!” - it will be the on-demand services, delivered through onboard connectivity that are tailored to each passenger’s data that will become the norm in every part of the hospitality and transport sector.

Personalisation of services would enable you to start watching your favourite film onboard the plane, and your onward taxi or rail journey would join-up seamlessly at your point of arrival, taking you onwards to your final destination. This continuity will rely on a digital service that connects all forms of transport, bringing many types of services and products together under one umbrella.  

There is no reason why a seamless experience shouldn’t marry with the aspirations of environmentally conscious travellers. Technological and material developments should ensure that before 2050, low or even carbon-neutral travel is a reality.