It’s important to have a strong vision and pride in the products one produces. For Christopher Emerson, Airbus’s SVP marketing, the feelings run deeper than that. Emerson presented the new A350 Customer Design Center to the media yesterday as part of an event which also introduced the first passenger-configured A350 airframe to the public. And the theme of the presentation was quite clear: The A350 is not just a plane for today; it is a plane for many years to come. It is “future proof.”
This means that the cabin layout of the A350 is based on the concept of “simplicity by design” where efficiency of space on board the aircraft is a key factor. When it comes to fitting that space out with seats Airbus has a number of layout options available, including a 10-abreast, high-density option.
The trend to higher density seating in economy class is not a secret and, despite the airframer’s call for an 18-in standard seat width, Airbus is very much aware that the 221-inch cross-section of the A350 leaves open the possibility of a 3-4-3 arrangement, though airlines have so far ordered the A350 with 3-3-3 18-inch wide seats.
“This is allowing us to have a full breadth of product offering. Airlines which want to have a high-efficiency [layout] driving the lowest seat mile cost can have 10-abreast in the economy class cabin. We have our standard 9-abreast … which is meeting the standard that we believe is required for the continued growth in the industry, 18 inches between armrests,” says Emerson.
Emerson describes the overall cabin in grand terms, focusing on the space available for the airlines to give to customers.
“We’re talking about a 221 inch cross-section that essentially is the palette the airlines will have…. The sidewalls are almost vertical. That’s very important because as we want to optimize the space that is your personal space and we don’t want to encroach on your space,” he says.
Emerson also talked about the next set of travel decision makers.
“We have engaged a few studies … just to understand the passenger of the future. [Gen Y] may not be the middle of the market segment today but in 10 years they will be. What is it that they are expecting? How is it that they want to spend the time? And are we future proofed? …
“We think about air quality, we think about lighting, we think about the seats. And here we’re pretty happy with the XWB, the 18-inch seats, the cabin ambiance inside. I think here it is future proof for us: Superior seat, superior comfort, the whole environment is there.”
And sitting on the plane it is easy to see why Emerson feels that way. The layout on display inside this test aircraft, MSN 002, is rather comfortable. Admittedly our time on board was very, very brief. I probably spent a total of only 2-3 minutes in the seats themselves. And the pitch in the economy section is more generous than what most airlines offer which also skews the experience. Still, the overall feel was quite pleasant.
The economy class cabin has the Recaro 3620 seats, one of four options available to customers, in a 3-3-3 layout.
The business class cabin has the Sogerma Solstys staggered flat-bed seats in a 1-2-1 layout.
While the focus of the unveiling yesterday was mostly on the seating, there was also quite a bit of discussion about the IFE and how it relates to the passenger experience today and the future options for the aircraft. The IFE screens are bigger than comparable offerings on prior generation aircraft, but there are many other little things as well. The IFE cabling being better integrated into the mounting rails, for example, and fiber optics are being used rather than copper to increase the system bandwidth and decrease weight.
Connectivity is being built in to the aircraft from the initial design, with line-fit satellite-based systems available from the first customer delivery. And the control box for the IFE systems is no longer mounted to the underside of the seat, freeing up space for passengers. All of this should add up to a more comfortable experience for passengers.
For Airbus these changes to the IFE system are also part of the “future proof” concept they’ve applied to the A350.
“We’re really thinking about future-proofing [in-flight entertainment and connectivity] and for Airbus the A350 XWB is an enabler. We have the right cabin and it is future-proofed. … When we look inside the aircraft the backbone architecture of the flat-floor wiring, the fiber optics, the single cable strand into each of the seats, the fourth generation IFE that allows even 3-D content: this one we feel is future-proofed,” says Emerson.
The layout is comfortable, to be sure. But it is also clearly not a customer-delivery setup. Only once a full complement of passengers have loaded on board will we really know just how well the plans have executed. In the meantime, however, consider this cautious optimism. It looks pretty good so far.