When it comes to passenger experience, there should be no compromise
In aerospace we often worry about the aerostructures – from the rivets to the fan blades. For airlines, though, the challenge is increasingly about keeping up with what the passenger expects. Whether it's accessibility or entertainment, airlines have to take their interiors strategy seriously and align product offers with marketing messages – on this, there can be no compromise.
Our industry is all about compromise. We can produce comfortable seats with extra seat pitch and provide amazing food – but at a cost. Airline management is constantly agonising over the fine line between cost and benefit. At the Aircraft Interiors Expo held in Hamburg last week, there was plenty of opportunity to see that balancing act in action.
More airline CEOs than you can shake a stick at were there looking at the latest technologies, gadgets, in-flight entertainment innovations and game-changing connectivity. There were seats that can convert into beds with enough space to host a fashion shoot, and even on-board lavatories that can do their own sniff test to decide when to let the next passenger in.
While some elements were cost-related, others were drumming up new ancillary revenues or increasing the analytics that will better target – or attract – passengers to buy into airline services.
Passenger experience really is vital and is directly related to the potential financial success of the airlines.
A way to go
Some passengers, though, are not getting the experience they deserve. In the UK recently, the appalling treatment experienced on board an aircraft by a high-profile disabled television journalist raised the issue of how airlines help (or don't help) passengers with reduced mobility, or ‘PRM’s as they are known in the trade.
Three million flights by Britons with disabilities alone indicates how great the numbers affected are. How many more potential passengers are out there? But, if the passenger cannot use the lavatory, then what “experience” will they enjoy?
Both Bombardier and Airbus showed at Hamburg that they have options to make toilets on board wheelchair-friendly and enable PRM customers to travel with dignity. The onus is now on the airlines to give up a bit of galley space and take up the options offered by the OEMs to support this sector of the travelling public.
“The important thing is dignity,” Bombardier’s Patrick Baudis told me.
“We have designed this option into the CSeries and now we have it for the CRJs. Having a curtain is not a solution. We have to ensure there is space to allow the passenger autonomy, movement and dignity.”
Hamburg also proved just how much digital transformation and big data are driving passenger experience. It had a co-located show dedicated solely to passenger technology solutions, featuring some of the most cutting-edge innovators in big data, machine learning and predictive analytics.
It is certainly going to be a challenge. During the event, analytics company Black Swan Data unveiled an alliance with Gategroup to allow as-you-board pre-ordering of meals based on predictions of what particular types of passenger on certain routes are likely to want. The partnership estimates a reduction in wastage of up to 50%, as well as up to 15% cost savings.
The aircraft interiors market has changed a lot over the past decade as the airlines have put a greater focus on passenger experience and differentiation. The cabin outfitters and component manufacturers were not ready to meet the growing demand. Seats have been a particular issue.
Airbus’s A350 production line has been held up by a host of different interior equipment supply problems. Zodiac – now part of the Safran group – had admitted to a lack of investment in modernisation resulting in insufficient capacity. Boeing and Bombardier were also affected.
B-E Aerospace also became part of the consolidation rush within the industry, being bought by Rockwell Collins – itself an acquisition by United Technologies.
Boeing has taken a step further having declared an intention to start manufacturing seats through a new joint venture with automotive seating specialist Adient. That is a very clear wake-up call for the incumbent suppliers to address the capacity bottlenecks that have hampered virtually all airframers’ production ramp-up plans.
Boeing’s senior vice-president of supply chain management, finance and business operations, Kevin Schemm, said the move was to support “the aviation industry’s needs for more capacity in the seating category, superior quality and reliable on-time performance."
“Seats have been a persistent challenge for our customers, the industry and Boeing. We’re taking action to address constraints in the market,” he said.
UK firm Starling Aerospace – a small independent with a fast-growing reputation – already took steps to shake up the seating market in the niche business aviation sector, launching a seat that can be retro-fitted to business jets in weeks rather than 18 months.
It is this flexibility and agility that I suspect we will see more of. With the consolidation of the big boys, and the involvement of the airframers, there will be greater opportunities for the agile, quality, high performing SMEs who will ensure that operators can give passengers the experience they demand.
Pressure is also on in the in-flight entertainment and connectivity sector. Passengers are looking for the same levels of connectivity, entertainment and gaming that they enjoy at home. This has been a challenge for airlines for years as service providers have struggled to meet the level of expectation, with airlines feeling the brunt of the passenger wrath.
With Inmarsat’s Global Xpress connectivity speeding up and broadening the access, greater opportunities exist.
At Hamburg, there was plenty of talk about areas such as 3D screens and fast access using your own device to stream movies, newspapers and flight information during the flight. Panasonic was also confident that 4K resolution could soon be at an airline seat near you.
In aerospace we often worry about the aerostructures from the rivets to the fan blades. For the airlines it is increasingly about how to deliver what the passenger wants.
Whether it is to enable a disabled passenger access to the bathroom, or a teenage gamer to play the latest game on her iPad, airlines have to take their interior strategy seriously and align product offers with marketing messages – on this, there can be no compromise.