Tomorrow's Planes Stop Over in Hamburg

Business-class seats made from ergonomic memory foam to alleviate pressure on muscles and joints. Ultra-light seat fabrics that can reduce the weight of an aircraft up to 25%. An airy entrance with an elegant domed ceiling that shows the cramped doorways of most commercial jets for the human sardine cans that they are.

These were some of the notable offerings at the recent Aircraft Interiors Expo 2006, held in Hamburg, Germany from Apr. 4-6. The event offers a preview of the latest innovations in plane design and serves as a snapshot of future trends frequent flyers can look forward to.


  This 2006 Expo was larger than those in previous years, with more than 11,000 visitors (an increase from 10,650 in 2005), 450 exhibitors (up from about 400 last year), and an additional hall to accommodate the increased exhibitor roster. The dominant themes of the Expo were in-flight communication systems and first- and business-class amenities.

These built on the industry trends of adding features like wireless, on-board Internet connections and devoting increased attention to high-paying customers (think of the recent spate of business-class airlines, such as Eos, launched last year). Another hot topic: airline branding.

The increased interest in this year's Airline Interiors Expo might reflect the industry-wide focus on the importance of passenger experience. According to a new study released in early April by the University of Nebraska at Omaha's Aviation Institute, airline passengers complained at a rate of 0.89 per 100,000 customers in 2005, up from 0.76 per 100,000 customers in 2004.


  Offering fresh, innovative planes geared toward more comfy flights is one way to please passengers. And the media buzz generated around forward-thinking aircraft tech and plane design can also help raise the price of a plane-maker's stock. Just take a look at Boeing (BA).

With the increasing media attention surrounding its forthcoming Dreamliner plane, set for debut in 2008, the company's stock crossed the $80 mark for the first time ever on Apr. 6. The Dreamliner is the first commercial aircraft to be made of lightweight carbon composites and, in turn, offers a less noisy flight (see BW, 4/17/06, "Walt Gilette: Just Plane Genius").

The range of products on view at this year's Airline Interiors Expo served as a snapshot of what to expect onboard in the coming decade. These included a life-sized mock-up of the forthcoming Airbus A-350 plane, which features a spacious, dome-shaped entryway and a lighting system that provides simulated sunrise and sunset conditions to help flyers adjust to new time zones. Botany, a fabric manufacturer, showcased Liteweave, a seat fabric that weighs just 300 grams per square meter -- meaning that overall plane weight can be reduced. That translates into more efficient fuel burn, according to the company.


  Jennifer Coutts Clay, the author of Jetline Cabins (Wiley), says that "a plane cabin's look and seat design affect the passenger literally and metaphorically." Coutts Clay, who attended the Hamburg event, adds that "now that non-stop flights are up to 18 hours long, comfort is really important. As [is] connectivity to the office, family, and friends."

As a 30-year veteran in airline management, Coutts Clay sums up the overall trends at the fair as "exciting for passengers, who are paying to keep the airlines in business." These general trends include privacy partitions with sound-absorbing material in first class, innovative new fabrics that can keep passengers cool or warm throughout the plane cabin, cushions that contour to a passenger's particular body, devices that adjust humidity, and antibacterial surfaces.

Other trends include more ergonomic, easy-to-open-and-close overhead bins, as well as new seating plans-including those that feature inventive components like staggered chairs or folding seats in coach, for better leg room.


  The Expo comes on the heels of the updated, paperback version of Coutts Clay's Jetliner Cabins. The volume is the first to trace the evolution of airline-interior design. The book has a section billed as a "sneak peek" at forthcoming features in aircrafts by Airbus, Boeing, and other makers -- from elegant boutiques that rival anything seen on Rodeo Drive or other on-ground luxury shopping destinations, to panoramic windows (see BW Online, "In Hamburg, Luxury Is in the Air").

"We're living at an exciting time," says Coutts Clay. "There is a lot to look forward to in the next 10 or 20 years."

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.