Passenger experience continues to become more and more of a focus for the Original Equipment Manufacturers, who try to create an atmosphere that’s appealing even as airlines cram more and more seats into airplanes to gain revenue in an environment where ancillary fees often mean the difference between profit and loss.
Cabin ambiance for mainline, and especially intercontinental, jets is a battle that hasn’t gotten much attention until the advent of the Boeing 787. The creation of the Boeing 747, of course, provided unprecedented space and ambiance and the “wide-body” was followed quickly by the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 and Lockheed L-1011. Creating the wide-body look for the single aisle airplanes followed, with improvements subsequently in overhead bins and the look of the ceiling. But it wasn’t until the 787 that there was a dramatic change in the cabin interior look and feel. Boeing expanded this look to the 747-8 and the 737.
Airbus, on the other hand, has largely stayed with functionality over pizzazz. The interiors are pleasant, becoming equipped with softer lighting vs the harsh fluorescent bulbs and some mood lighting here and there, but by and large, the interiors are…functional. There’s no “wow” factor. Boeing’s 737 Sky Interior borrows heavily from the 787. Airbus’ A320 interior was last updated in 2007 and–publicly, at least–officials say they don’t plan to update the interior on the A320neo due to enter service in 2015. Mary Kirby of Runway Girl Network reported in December that Airbus is, in fact, planning an update but Airbus as yet denies it. Kirby’s story is behind her paywall.
Customers report that Airbus salesman say a new interior isn’t needed–the airplane is selling just fine with the current one, thank you very much. But Delta Air Lines became a customer for Zodiac’s new A320 ISIS interior that is a step beyond the 2007 Airbus OEM version. A video of Zodiac’s A320 ISIS may be found here.
Boeing, at press briefings last year in advance of the Paris Air Show, expressed through three speakers the increasing emphasis on designing cabins that increase the passenger experience and which will further enable airlines to get more revenues through fees. Mike Bair, now retired but at the time heading up future airplane programs, declared that the interior for the 777X would be the next generation and that the 787’s ground-breaking interior would be “obsolete” by then.
In an interview this week with Boeing, Blake Emery, director of differentiation strategy for Boeing, said that Bair’s characterization of the 787 interior “is absolutely not accurate. Mike got a rash of you-know-what” after that. “In working with potential customers on 777X it’s become abundantly clear that by the time the 777X is in service, 787 will have been in service quite some time. We raised the bar with 787 Sky Interior. The customers said, ‘do it again. That was so cool.'”
Boeing 787 interior for launch customer ANA. Boeing photo.
Airbus A350 XWB interior. Airbus photo.
“We’ve got something that isn’t going to obsolete itself,” says Kent Craver, director of cabin experience and revenue analysis. “It really gets to the core human experience. Yeah, it looks cool,” he says of the 787 and 787-inspired interiors, “but it’s not just looking cool. It’s part of the key experience. You have to understand the research and background. Competitors will try to copy it and they’ve tried but have fallen short. A supplier [it’s Zodiac—Editor] has a retrofit and it’s similar, but it isn’t the same. It’s all of the research we’ve done that they can’t understand the background.”
Boeing has a small interior mock up it used in the early days of creating what was then known as the 7E7, later renamed the 787, that people went through in sort of a focus group setting. Called the Passenger Experience Research Center, or PERC, we were among those “PERCed” at the Museum of Flight in 2003 or 2004. It’s now permanently located at the Future of Flight Museum, where tours begin for Boeing’s massive Everett (WA) plant.
“It’s one of the elements of total research process,” Emery explains. “PERC is not where we get at underlying psychological research needs. PERCs validate and vet ‘this is a cool idea.’ If [the idea is cool], we work like crazy to get this feature on the airplane. PERC is empirical, validating research to see if we can get statistically valid research to that feature. The next research step is in-flight once the airplane is in service to see if we’re on target.”
Surveys, per se, aren’t especially useful, Boeing says.
“If you do a regular focus group or a survey with flying public in economy class, you don’t get anything new,” Emery says. “If you ask anyone in economy class, you always get the same thing. You want more legroom. If you are going to differentiate your product, you can’t do that.
“There are basic human needs. You feel violated if you are put into the space the airline gives you. None of the rational needs goes to the deeper human needs.”
Craver notes that many cabin choices are elements over which OEMs have no control: seat pitch, seats, WI-FI or in-flight entertainment systems, for example.
“As an OEM we don’t have control over that. Ultimately we want the experience on our airplane to always be better than on a competitor,” Craver says. “We’re trying to raise the bar on the starting point. The things we’re trying to bring to the table,” regardless of whether the airline is a full-service or low cost carrier and regardless of the class of service, help create passenger experience.
Airbus currently is engaged in a public relations and advertising campaign promoting its nine abreast A330/A350 18-inch wide seat as superior over Boeing’s economy class seats 17.2 inches in the 10-abreast 777 or the nine abreast 787. Setting aside the less obvious motive that Boeing’s airplanes get better seat-mile economics with the crammed configuration than do the more spacious Airbus seating arrangements, airlines have demonstrated they don’t really care all that much about passenger comfort in economy.
“We originally envisioned the 787 would be eight across and market quickly told us it’s a nine abreast airplane, just as market said 777 is now 10 abreast,” says Craver. “We do try to understand what drives passengers to airplane; it goes to cross section and the trade is economics.” Boeing could easily design a plane with a wider cross section, as Airbus did with the A320 and the A350 XWB (vs the 787, though narrower than the 777), but Craver noted that this increases the “wetted” area (and drag), which hurts economics without necessarily increasing revenue.
Airbus used some surveys to boost its campaign for 18-inch seats. Emery dismisses their validity.
“You can’t be fooled by research. Checking a list on a survey is different from actually being willing to pay for wider seats, more legroom, etc.” More valid, he says, is to ask, “How much would you like to have this experience again? Would you do this again? Or would you avoid it?”
Craver noted that about a decade ago, American Airlines added legroom throughout coach and “failed miserably.” United Airlines, on the other hand, added Premium Economy years ago, recognizing that there is a segment of the passenger public that will pay some additional for more legroom, but retaining the cramped seat pitch in the process in the economy cabin. Other airlines followed UAL’s approach, including American.
Boeing’s research has evolved. Craver says that “the validation survey tool we use was developed over 2 ½ years to ensure the questionnaire gets at the heart: feelings on an emotional level, a physical level, perception of cabin attributes, perception of other things in general to things we don’t change, such as cabin service, which has a halo impact.”
Surveys can reveal contradictory results. Craver recounts the introduction of the 747 in 1970. Passengers loved the spaciousness of the main desk, he said. On the other hand, passengers like the intimacy of the upper deck, too.
“As much as you would like in an in-flight survey, you’d love to know [why people respond as they do], you can’t with a survey,” says Emery. “You can only do that in a setting where you manipulate a variable. For example, there is the ability to control the amount of daylight in the cabin. The 787 beats every other airplane. We infer this must be because of the dimmable window.”