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Thu 9 Dec 2010 12:00 AM

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Grand designs

How important is aircraft interior design in the fight for passenger loyalty?

Grand designs
Emirates says the interior look and feel of its planes constitutes an important part of its service offering.

Ask any passenger for a first impression of an airplane
interior and you are unlikely to receive many mind-blowing descriptions. With
garish colour schemes and hard-wearing, resistant materials designed to
minimise wear and tear, economy flying is often perceived as, at best, a dreary
visual experience. Unlike its luxurious neighbours on the private aviation
runways, passenger carriers can be accused, understandably, of having
downplayed the importance of interior design in favour of lower flight costs
and enhanced route availability.

Where interior improvements are made, these
have tended towards technological advancements such as improving inflight
entertainment systems or telecommunications coverage rather than sprucing up
the seat covers. But with so many new aircraft orders and deliveries in the
pipeline, the Middle East’s carriers have been
turning to novel and improved interior design methods to boost up the quality
of their cabins in a way that is both aesthetically pleasing and
cost-effective.

Some of the region’s airlines have been undergoing a quiet
period of transition, hoping to emerge out of the aviation chrysalis in bright
and shiny interior design form. Gulf Air is a classic example, with the
Bahrain-based carrier putting the upgrading of its aircraft interior as a firm
priority. “At present every single cabin is being upgraded to ensure Gulf Air
is at the forefront,” says John Tighe, manager for aircraft interior design at
the airline. “Great importance is placed on the onboard experience; and we
believe cabin features contribute and compliment the service provided
throughout the travel process.” Earlier this year, the carrier launched its
premium experience ‘Falcon Gold’, where the entire cabin interior was
completely refurbished to create a “comfortable and consistent” feel –
including the upcoming introduction of a new state-of-the-art flat bed for long
haul flights.

Increasingly, such refurbishment programmes have shifted
away from being the sole remit of the exclusive first and business classes and
many airlines have quickly cottoned on to the benefits of having aesthetically
pleasing economy cabins as well. Gulf Air, for example, has built its A320
fleet with built-in individual in-flight entertainment and promises more to
follow. “Our future includes a significant emphasis on delivering great
aircraft product and rolling out more enhancements and added value to the
service,” promises Tighe.

Gulf Air is not alone in its quest for added value through
interior design. With a shiny new Airbus A330 fleet at its disposal, Oman Air
has been in the privileged position of being able to start as it means to go on
with interiors which promise to ‘set a new standard over all classes’. “The
launch of Oman Air’s new A330 fleet gave us the opportunity to completely
rethink our aircraft interiors,” emphasises Abdulaziz Al Raisi, chief officer
for management affairs at the airline. “We are focusing on delivering the
highest quality in everything we do, expressing traditional Omani hospitality
and increasing international awareness of Oman’s culture and enterprising
spirit.”

With a 34-inch pitch and a slim-line design that adds even
more legroom, Oman Air ambitions have been to raise the bar by offering a
premium economy experience at economy prices. “We took the same approach with
our business class cabin, which still gets mistaken for first class,” boasts Al
Raisi. “The business class cabin has a luxurious open feel to it, whilst
ensuring that each customer can protect their privacy if they want to.”

With the continuing increase in passenger numbers since the
new cabin has been introduced, Oman Air is confident that its interiors clearly
do matter when it comes to passenger choice. But in the wider market struggle
for passenger loyalty, to what extent does seat colour or cabin lighting
ambience really matter?

Tighe, like others, believes that even seemingly minor
factors such as aircraft interior do indeed make a difference in passenger
choice in a market where flight costs and routes are leveling out. “Frequent
flyers become quite discerning, even if it is subconsciously, over time.
Sometimes, small subtle design touches can single out an airline as it
concentrates on the product and the overall user experience,” he argues.

In more recent times, the whole face of aircraft interiors
has undergone a serious make-under. Opting for simpler designs, today’s
airlines are preferring cleaner, crisper interiors – emphasising comfort,
convenience and ease of use.
“Previously, more was better with extra features, more switches and
adjustability - all of which may look elaborate and impressive but in actuality
were quite problematic,” recalls Tighe. “More options meant more weight on the
aircraft and a higher probability of glitches leading to frequent maintenance,
all of which are not in the best interest of both passenger nor airline.“

With the buzz word of the aviation industry licking its
post-recession wounds being ‘improving efficiencies’, not surprisingly the
focus of aircraft interiors has also moved towards the use of lighter weight
materials and components for cabin seating. This year, SABIC Innovative
Plastics announced five new materials to help reduce the weight of aircraft
interiors. The benefits of these special new high-end products appear endless –
reducing weight by up to 50 percent, meeting stringent flame-smoke-toxicity
(FST) regulations, reducing overall system costs and enhancing the cabin both
aesthetically and in terms of safety and comfort. It is little wonder that
lightweight interiors are fast becoming the new super-heroes in the aircraft
interiors world.

Swiss based TISCA TIARA group has been selling cabin weight
reduction solutions to the industry for years. Most recently, the company is
promoting its new lightweight carpet - a staggeringly 25% lighter alternative
to standard aircraft carpets. “Weight is important because it translates
directly into kerosene spendings. Next to costs savings, less kerosene
consumption also means reducing the carbon footprint and helping operators to
become greener airlines,” says Matthias Tischhauser, division manager for
mobility textiles at TISCA TIARA. An aircraft can, on average, burn around
0.03kg of fuel for each kilogram carried on board per hour – adding thousands
of tons of fuel per flight. The mathematics behind the use of lighter weight
materials become self-explanatory. “This new kind of carpet is characterised by
a different construction than standard aircraft carpets, offering exciting
possibilities to airlines,” Tischhauser enthuses. He promises to provide any
design, colour and width desired by the airline, and already has a long list of
the region’s leading airlines keen to take on this promising interiors trend.

Other innovative aircraft interiors have not necessarily met
with such enthusiasm. Earlier this year, the US-based Aircraft Interiors Expo
at the Long Beach Convention Centre controversially showcased the Skyrider
seat. This is best described as resembling a padded saddle, which allows
airlines to fit 40% more travellers per flight - but with only a meager 23
inches of legroom to spare, a huge seven inches less than usual. Whilst the
seat has neither Federal Aviation Administration approval nor orders from any
major airline, many critics have put it down as being rather an extreme measure
which most carriers may never consider.

It appears that at the end of the day, common sense and the
comfort of the passengers prevail when it comes to aircraft interiors.
“Technical innovations, such as the use of lightweight materials and
ground-breaking engineering solutions, are always of great interest to airlines
and interior designers, but much of this goes unseen by the passenger,” points
out Oman Air’s Al Raisi.

What passengers do see, of course, is the décor and quality
of the interior of cabin furnishings, and it is this initial impression which
can influence their perception of the whole travel experience – whether it be
in a first class cabin or on a Low Cost Carrier (LCC). Earlier this year, the United Arab Emirates
based LCC, Air Arabia, signed a seven-year deal with Botany Weaving for seat
fabric, curtains and carpeting to supply its latest order of 44 aircraft. “We
have worked closely with Botany Weaving and came up with best quality of fabric
available with a customised colour to give the comfort and ambience needed
onboard our flights. In fact, we have received the first aircraft out of the 44
we ordered and we are very pleased with the interiors,” say AK Nizar, head of
commercial at Air Arabia. The airline has always been about value for money,
and the very ethos of the low-cost carrier has been to focus on the core value
needed in air travel whilst leaving customers with the choice to add on services
as necessary.

Nevertheless, as Nizar is quick to point out, Air Arabia
boasts one of the best leg room space available in the market, with ‘innovative
seats’ that promise passengers comfort during the flight. “Comfort onboard any
flight is very important,” he emphasises. “The focus is always about careful
choosing of seats and the seat pitch. In fact, the economy cabin of LCCs
provides 32 inches of leg room, which is higher compared to economy cabins of
traditional carriers.” Sharing airspace with one of the giants’ in the airline
industry, Emirates, it is not surprising that the low cost airline is keen to
ensure its aircraft interiors do not get left behind.

And when it comes to investments, Emirates’ has a formidable
reputation for not holding back, and its aircraft interiors budget is no
exception. In 2007, Emirates invested a whopping US $600 million in its
inflight products and services, including flat beds with in-seat massage,
dine-on-demand room service, in-suite personal mini bar and private sliding
doors. In total, 51 new Boeing 777s will include the new interiors, and an
unspecified number of existing aircraft will undergo retrofits. “The interior
aesthetics of our aircraft are an important part of our service offering. A
huge amount has been invested across the years in ensuring all our fleet meets
our customers’ high standards,” says Iain Lachlan, divisional senior vice
president for Emirates Engineering. The carrier has an ongoing refurbishment
plan for its existing fleet including the full upgrade of interiors on 33
Boeing 777 aircraft. To date, eleven have already been completed, with the
remainder due to be finished by January 2013.

Over the years, Emirates has invested an increasingly
significant amount of money on its interiors, developing the cabin interiors to
meet each aircraft’ specific requirements and loves its special touches.
“Customers are inundated with choice when travelling and an important part of
their purchasing decision is value for money,” justifies Lachlan
matter-of-factly. “Passengers want to travel in comfort and at Emirates we take
great pride in our high quality service and onboard innovations.”

With some of the
region’s most successful airlines placing value and investment into their
aircraft interiors, taking a flight promises to be a much more comfortable and
attractive experience in the near future. For the passenger, and indeed for any
sensible airline, interior design is not only about implementing a certain look
or saving fuel money, but more closely related to making the experience of
sitting in a confined space for a long time an acceptable one – and a memorable
one for the right reasons.

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