Keeping its finger on the pulse of the ever-evolving passenger experience is a major priority for Airbus, which in 2005 adopted a “consumer-centric” approach in order to understand the various needs of airlines, flight attendants, maintenance workers and of course the passenger to deliver the right products and processes.
“There are different needs and we have to listen to them all,” says Airbus VP cabin innovation and design Ingo Wuggetzer, who regularly speaks about the European airframer’s Concept Cabin for the year 2050, a totally new, nature-inspired flying experience that envisages aircraft seats that mould to passengers’ own body shapes and an integrated ‘neural network’ that creates an intelligent interface between passenger and plane.
In order to predict the future, however, Airbus identified trends that are colouring the present passenger experience. The European airframer is now addressing these trends with real-world solutions.
One clear trend is that the population is growing in girth. To help meet the needs of passengers of size – and give airlines an opportunity to glean additional ancillary revenue from those passengers who are eager to pay for a larger seat – the airframer worked with aircraft interiors giant B/E Aerospace to develop a new single-aisle seat triple, which comprises two seats measuring a width of 17in each and a third seat that measures 20in in width.
Wuggetzer says Airbus has taken the “benefit of the additional width of the A320 family cross section” to offer the new 17in, 17in, 20in triple. Whilst he does not know which airline will adopt the triple first, he says “it could take off in the United States first, although we have seen positive reaction from airlines around the world”.
Offering a wider seat is a good start to addressing a growing problem. “In 2050, we will see 700 million obese people worldwide. That’s unbelievable. And also Europe is catching up – 40% of our school kids are overweight so we take all those trends into account,” notes Wuggetzer.
Also on the rise is the adoption by airlines of premium economy seating, which can be distinguished by greater seat pitch, greater seat width, or both, as is the case for British Airways’ World Traveller Plus offering.
“[Premium economy] is what we see in general rising, from a neutral point of view. More premium economy classes are being built in to our aircraft, and premium economy depends a little on who is flying in economy today – what we see is economy is highly loaded with business travellers. That means they are not flying business, but flying economy,” says Wuggetzer.
“Also the people in economy class are getting older, and might spend extra money for an extra two inches of comfort, and that is something that is reasonable to pay more for. This is reflecting demand. We see in general that premium economy is filling a gap of what people would actually like to see.”
Will traditional first-, business- and economy-class cabin configurations ultimately be replaced by business-, premium economy- and economy-class? “It’s not a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer; it depends on the region and customer segmentation. So starting with Lufthansa for instance, they have not stopped offering first class, they have only reduced the destinations they fly to with first class. That means that where there is first-class demand, they will still offer first class, so that will be quite a lot of destinations but not all.”
In the future, as part of Airbus’ 2050 vision, these types of issues might not be a concern, as “perhaps people could choose their seat pitch and seat width, and the seat would adapt”, adds Wuggetzer.
Meanwhile, the number of female air travellers is also increasing. Since there is power in numbers, the influence of women is gaining strength. “I think that I would say that the female forces are really on the rise. They are very clever, it’s cool, they earn a lot of money, and so it’s a really interesting market segment. They are decision makers in travel, and that is having a big influence on airlines,” says Wuggetzer.
But more research is required to tailor products to the female demographic. “We tried several times some change rooms with mirrors and some amenity kits in premium class specifically for females, but I think that’s about it,” he says.
Airbus is currently conducting consumer research with focus groups to observe behaviours and try to find value-added products that women are willing to pay for. “So we’re looking carefully at a bottom up market analysis to identify what products are really relevant to develop,” says the Airbus executive, adding: “Usually these products are still developed by the man’s world, but look at the baby changing tables. Little things could be done to make the changing table more ergonomic.”
Even as passenger size has become an issue for airlines and airframers – and perhaps as a reaction to this trend – some people are spending more and more money to buy good, quality food, and to use their money for health reasons, “and we have a challenge in convincing those passengers that we are providing sustainable products on board aircraft”, says Wuggetzer.
“Most flyers don’t know that we have reduced fuel burn by 70 per cent (globally, in last 40 yrs.), that recycling percentage of an aircraft is 85 per cent and that an A380 burns about 2.9 litres of fuel per passenger for every 100 kilometres – a lot less than the cars on the ground. It’s important that they know that they can buy a ticket and don’t have any bad feelings of that.”