The first Airbus A380 to enter commercial service, delivered to Singapore Airlines last October some 18 months later than planned, was anticipated as much for its cabin interior as for the aircraft itself.
At the handover in Toulouse, France, the airline revealed for the first time its cabin configuration for the world’s largest airliner. The twin-deck, twin-aisle A380, providing 50 percent more floor space than the Boeing 747, can carry 525 passengers in standard, three-class configuration and potentially more than 800 in full economy class. Singapore Airlines, supported by Airbus’s flexible approach to cabin customization, configured the aircraft for 471 seats in three classes, including 12 spacious "Singapore Airlines Suites," described as "A Cabin Class Beyond First Class."
A380 deliveries this year to Qantas and Emirates airlines will reveal further possibilities in cabin layout and amenities. Indeed, for customer airlines and their passengers, the Superjumbo represents the ultimate in cabin customization. The next new aircraft on the horizon, the 270- to 350-seat Airbus A350 XWB, will be manufactured differently, with a lesser degree of customization than the A380.
Airbus acknowledges being influenced, at least in part, by Boeing’s standardization push on the 787 Dreamliner, against which the A350 will compete.
"The business model will be a little bit different (for the A350), dealing with other ways of defining the customer cabin interior," said Michael Lau, Airbus manager of A380 industrial design. "The range of customization is not as big as the A380. This is one point that is clear, but the expression ‘standardization’ is not the right one. The way to deal with (customization) is different, but to incorporate customer requests is a goal for A350 as well."
With a 2,500-aircraft backlog and demand for its single-aisle A320 family remaining strong, A380 deliveries accelerating and the A350 in development, Airbus is undergoing a steep production ramp-up. The airframer aims to increase production from 39 aircraft per month last year (32 single-aisle and 7 wide body A330/A340) to 54 aircraft per month in 2010 (40 single-aisle, 10 A330/A340 and about 4 A380). Following last year’s inaugural delivery to Singapore Airlines, Airbus plans to deliver 13 A380s in 2008, 25 in 2009 and 45 in 2010.
If Airbus is to match those delivery expectations, it must contain the number and complexity of custom-configured aircraft "head-of" versions (HoVs) it produces, said Rainer von Borstel, senior vice president of the Airbus Cabin Center of Excellence. An HoV represents the first aircraft configured to an airline’s specification and serves as the stamp upon which following aircraft are based.
In 2006, Airbus delivered 434 aircraft across all lines with 100 HoVs, said von Borstel, who gave the keynote address at the AEEC General Session in Hamburg, Germany, last September.
"Less customization on A350 is really necessary in order to cope with the steep production ramp-up we have to manage," von Borstel said. "The higher the production rates and number of HoVs, the higher the demand for standardization."
Final assembly of the A380 takes place in Toulouse, with cabin fitting and painting done in Hamburg. Hamburg — site of A318, A319 and A321 final assembly — hosts the company’s Center of Excellence for cabin and cargo customization.
An A380 involves seven to eight times the cabin customization effort of a single-aisle aircraft, yet customization is considered a strength of the Superjumbo, Airbus executives say. A majority of the early customer airlines view the $320 million aircraft as a premium product, a flagship on which to introduce new amenities and service concepts that give them an advantage over the competition.
"At the premium end, the product that the airline sells to the passengers is not particularly price-elastic. The differentiation is done on service and on functionalities that are provided," said Bob Lange, Airbus head of cabin strategy.
The first 10 A380 customers "all have very significant cabin customizations, particularly covering the use of seats, the way they are dealing with galleys and bars and the use of social areas," Lange said.
Sheikh Ahmed Saeed Al-Maktoum, Emirates chairman and CEO, attested to the importance of cabin comfort last November, when he announced a $500 million contract amendment to install Panasonic Avionics’ eX2 in-flight entertainment system (IFE) on new aircraft purchases and fleet upgrades. Emirates, which placed $35 billion in orders at the 2007 Dubai Airshow, is the largest A380 customer with 58 orders.
"In the fiercely contested premium air travel segment, seat comfort and in-flight entertainment are the key differentiators, and we intend to stay ahead of the game with our ground-breaking in-flight entertainment system," the Emirates chief said.
The dimensions of the Superjumbo allow for both flexibility and creativity in cabin design. The A380 provides 50 percent more floor space than the 747, but only 35 percent more seats. The remaining 15 percent of space is available for customized areas without penalizing the seat count, Lau said.
The configuration of one deck can differ from that of the other, with different combinations of seating classes. This introduces complexity to the assembly process, Lange acknowledged, but the aircraft is designed with interfaces to facilitate such interchangeability. There are more cross aisles and door areas — the most efficient places to locate service points such as galleys and lavatories.
Airbus offers 12 different combinations of interiors with overhead stowage compartments in different sizes, based on a modular system with common interface points.
"By its very nature, we are putting a platform out there that invites airlines to be more creative in the way they split up the area," Lange said. "... Given that you’re in business to transport passengers, your key factor is the number of seats, and anything else you do to enhance the service around those seats competes with the number of seats itself. In the A380, more than in any other aircraft, the trade-off between using space for a seat or using it for an element that enhances the service around that seat, allows more variety. It’s really dimensionally driven."
Airbus and Singapore Airlines started the A380 cabin design process in the late 1990s. The resulting Singapore Airlines Suites, located on the aircraft’s main deck, were conceived by French yacht designer Jean-Jacques Coste and manufactured by Tokyo-based Jamco Corp. and Sicma Aero Seat of Issoudun, France, according to the airline. They contain a nearly meter-wide (39 inches) fully adjustable seat, a separate, full-size bed with plush mattress and a 23-inch LCD display for in-flight entertainment.
The 60 passengers in business class, located on the upper deck, have 34-inch-wide seats that can be converted into full-flat beds. Debuted in 2006 on the airline’s Boeing 777-300ER fleet — but wider on the A380 — the seats were designed by James Park Associates of London and manufactured by Koito Industries Ltd., of Yokohama, Japan. Business travelers have 15.4-inch LCD screens with USB ports and in-seat power.
The 399 Economy class seats, located on the main and upper decks, are designed and built by Weber Aircraft LP, of Gainesville, Texas. Economy passengers have 10.6-inch viewing screens and USB ports at each seat.
A380 cabin windows, supplied by Nordam Group, of Tulsa, Okla., measure 15-by-11 inches). Ambiance lighting on the Singapore Airlines’ aircraft is supplied by Diehl Aerospace, a joint venture of Diehl and Thales.
Following the same choice it made for IFE on its 777-300ERs, Singapore Airlines chose the eX2 system from Panasonic Avionics, Lake Forest, Calif., for the A380. The eX2 and Thales’s TopSeries i-5000 systems are offered on the Superjumbo. At this writing, two-thirds of the airlines that had ordered IFE for the A380 had specified the eX2, according to Patrick Candelier, Airbus head of IFE marketing.
Both are advanced IFE systems based on high-speed fiber optic Ethernet backbones, reducing both wiring and weight. IFE content is contained on head-end servers with overall capacity on the A380 of 10 terabytes, according to Candelier. Seat-back video display units process data at the local level.
"Apart from the weight and power consumption reduction, the bandwidth that we ensure down to the seat has been increased noticeably," Candelier said. "This provides more quality, more fluidity and more possibilities for the passenger in terms of entertainment.
"Now, technically, airlines really have the freedom of the level of service they want to offer to their passengers," Candelier added. "It’s not unlimited, but it comes to levels such that no passenger will ever have the time to look at all the entertainment possibilities that an airline may provide on an A380, taking into consideration the possibility that they will renew that content."
The Singapore Airlines’ eX2 system provides audio and video on demand in all three seating classes and features 100 movies, 150 television programs, 22 broadcast radio channels, 710 music CDs and multiplayer games, according to Panasonic. During in-flight operability testing last spring on the Airbus A380 MSN007 cabin test aircraft, the eX2 system endured stress testing in which passengers were instructed to simultaneously select the same movies and games.
IFE system reliability is a Holy Grail that may never be fully grasped by manufacturers, given the high degree of passenger contact involved. Nevertheless, Airbus is supporting system robustness in the design of the IFE network architecture.
"We have put in place — and this is patented — redundancy means such that any single failure of a box in the IFE system would impact only one seat group," Candelier said. "This is new. This is accomplished through a loop mechanism, through a cross-feeding mechanism in the distribution chain and the same type of redundancy options at the head end of the system."
A separate aircraft network known as the Cabin Intercommunication and Data System, available on the A380 and other Airbus types, manages services including cabin communications, lighting, doors and passenger calls. Up to 10 flight attendant panels, 15-inch diagonal touch screens, can be installed on the A380, Candelier said.
Singapore Airlines had ordered 19 A380s, and was expecting delivery of its second and third aircraft in January and February, respectively. The first 10 aircraft will be configured as present; the cabin design of the other nine had not been decided.
The next airlines on the A380 reception line — Emirates and Qantas — were expecting first deliveries in the third quarter this year. They have ordered 58 and 20 A380s, respectively.
A380 customer airlines may be the last to have a truly free hand in designing cabin features and amenities. Half of the customization work on the Superjumbo "is based outside of the catalog," Lau said, because customers expect unique features in certain compartments. Whereas the A380 involved more vendor approvals, the A350 is moving toward product-based catalogs for buyer furnished equipment.
Lange described the industrial strategy behind the A350 development, but was careful to emphasize that airlines will continue to have a say in customizing the external appearance and features of their cabins.
On the A350 "we’re ramping up production faster than we have done on any long-range aircraft before, and to a higher rate," Lange said. "We are moving to, let’s say, a more standardized aircraft. I want to qualify that comment, because it’s our intention to offer a greater degree of differentiation to our customer airlines than our competitor. It’s something on which our whole long-range product line is based... but it doesn’t come without difficulties, particularly on the industrial side for ramp-up.
He continued: "What we are doing on the A350 is we are focusing very much on the platform design and ensuring we have a very clear path running from the standard platform, which is something that as a passenger you never touch or feel, through to the customization, based on a very clear catalog of products.
"The standardization is absolute in terms of the interface with the aircraft, but it’s not standardization in terms of the products the airline chooses or the passenger touches or feels."
A380 Support Contract
Singapore Airlines became the first airline to order Airbus’s A380 Flight Hour Services. The launch airline signed an initial, 10-year agreement covering line replaceable units (LRUs), spare parts and services for avionics, cabin systems and integrated modular avionics systems.
The service is designed to minimize aircraft-on-the-ground time during repairs and maintenance by providing airlines with quicker access to spare parts and services at predictable rates, based on stock and flight-hour parameters, said Airbus, which announced the agreement in November.
The airframer said it has deployed "a proactive logistics network" to manage the flow of parts from around the world. The parts "are transported 24 hours a day between Singapore Airlines, the Airbus logistics network and all Airbus LRU manufacturers."