(Bloomberg) -- Since the dawn of the jet age, airlines have adopted a uniform model for passenger cabins. There have been modest variations—a rear-facing seat here, a tiny first class bar there—but the basic template of forward-facing seats and rows has withstood the test of time because it’s efficient and makes money.
Futurists at A3, Airbus Group’s Silicon Valley research outpost, are contemplating a new paradigm. Instead of a design that’s set in stone when the aircraft rolls out for its maiden flight, they envision mobile modules a carrier could adjust rapidly, much the way freight airlines alter interiors for cargo.
This approach to the passenger space could open the door to a new kind of commercial airline cabin. Imagine a restaurant-quality meal served aloft, or a coffee bar, a play area for children, or a sleeping compartment—and not just for the rich folks up front. At some point, A3 designers hope, these on-board options could become the kind of popular draw that passengers pay for, and thus give airlines incentive to consider more creatively how an airplane might generate profit.
“One of the reasons that we’re going public is so we can hear what other types of experiences passengers and airlines would be interested in having aboard their aircraft,” said Jason Chua, the leader of the A3 cabin project, which is called Transpose. The modules wouldn’t work with any current aircraft; a plane would need to be equipped for it at the manufacturing stage.
The idea is to expand the kind of niche amenities some airlines now offer big spenders—premium-cabin showers and cocktail bars, for example—and allow carriers to move further from the commodity business of cattle class.
One surprise is that, according to Chua, the project isn’t likely to encounter any insurmountable hurdles regarding safety regulations. “The reason that cabins are by-and-large forward-facing seats and rows isn’t because other things aren’t safe,” he said. “We think it’s because there hasn’t been a system for airlines to reconfigure their aircraft more rapidly.”
The modules also could diversify airline revenue in terms of additional advertising. “With modular spaces, you start to create some really interesting spaces for advertisers,” Chua said, offering an example of a film studio creating an immersive experience in a cabin module. (Airlines and Hollywood have a long history of using jets as flying billboards.)
A3, which is based in San Jose, is focusing its initial effort on wide-body aircraft, which would use 10 to 14 modules for the cabin. These would be designed, built, and sold by third-party aerospace companies in the same way seats, lavatories, and galleys are now. The Transpose group hopes to have “a high-level demonstrator” in the next two to four years, Chua said.
Airbus knows its Transpose business case must be solid before an airline will bite, and on that front the modular concept could encounter resistance. It’s just not clear that such amenities could match or exceed the revenue airlines reap from seats, said George Ferguson, a senior airline and aerospace analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence.
A3 designers are pitching Transpose to carriers as a major leap in airline fleet flexibility. In this new world, any particular cabin feature—say, a premium seat or a lounge area—wouldn’t require a long-term commitment. Cabin overhauls could be completed within hours, or perhaps a day, A3 estimates. The modules would allow a greater separation between cabin elements and the airframe, giving carriers an opportunity to experiment and to further differentiate their product from that of rivals.
“Today, if you put a shower on an airplane, that shower’s going to stay there for the next seven to 10 years,” Chua said. “With Transpose, you can try something that you think will work out. If it works, then great. If not, you can change it.”
A module could also contain plain vanilla seats if airlines decide it is a superior way to alter seating capacity, depending on business conditions or a route’s seasonality. In recent years, U.S. airlines have been assiduously “densifying” economy cabins in a bid to simultaneously boost revenue and lower per-seat operating costs. In other words, a module could become a better mouse trap merely by adjusting cabin density.
“Any time you have new types of innovation, whether that’s premium economy or lie-flat seats,” Chua said, “as soon as that becomes something that passengers really want, then the industry shifts pretty radically.”