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Thursday, November 1, 2007

Editor’s Note: The Final Frontier

Bill Carey

In this day and age, when passenger amenities, or the lack thereof, distinguish one airline from the next, the Airbus A380 represents the final frontier in cabin customization. Recent interviews with Airbus executives and a tour of the airframer’s Hamburg, Germany, assembly complex reveal that in the case of the Superjumbo, nothing has been spared in meeting airline requirements for passenger comfort.

While I couldn’t procure a newspaper in Economy class on the flight over, A380 operators are likely to offer features including massage rooms, stand-up bars, larger lavatories and the latest in inflight entertainment from Panasonic Avionics or Thales. No one is suggesting that airlines will abolish the class system when it comes to seating, but the width of the A380, which exceeds that of the Boeing 747, at least provides for one-inch wider seats in Economy class.

The girth of the A380 and Airbus’s flexible approach to customization make it possible for an airline to realize its every desire for cabin amenities. Each deck on the double-decker can be configured separate of the other, with any combination and size of seating class. Different galleys are possible in different locations, and lavatory sizes, locations and details are multitudinous. Airbus executives said every airline but one that had ordered the A380 as of September had specified customizable mood lighting in at least part of the cabin, and no airline had used maximum seating capacity. Singapore Airlines, which was expecting delivery of the first A380 in October, says it has configured the aircraft for "fewer than 480" passengers.

In addition to final assembly of the single-aisle, A320 line, Airbus maintains a center of excellence for cabin and cargo customization in Hamburg. In a building attached to the center, I donned 3D glasses with Michael Lau, manager of A380 industrial design, for a virtual tour of the MSN007 test aircraft cabin. Airbus, naturally, was prevented from displaying what a Singapore or a Qantas cabin will look like.

"The Airbus policy was always and still is to make customer demands a reality," Lau said from across the darkened mini theater. "This is especially true for the A380, because the expectations from our customers are much higher than in each other program. Each of the customers would like to use the A380 as a kind of a flagship. They would like to introduce new opportunities, new devices, new service concepts with the A380 and then later on, apply them to the [rest of] the fleet where it is possible. This was the starting point for our A380 design philosophy."

Airbus engineers did their part by delivering the world’s largest airliner. "The benefit of the A380 is that we are providing 50 percent more floor space than the 747, but only 35 percent more seats," Lau said. "That means the remaining 15 percent will be used for customized areas without penalizing the seat count. This is a benefit in terms of customization. We are much more flexible in installing highly customized areas without impacting the seat count."

I say A380 represents the "final frontier," however, because Airbus, in its development of the A350XWB, is taking an approach similar to Boeing’s on the 787 Dreamliner, which has seen a reduction in cabin options as well as flight-deck and systems choices due to standardization. That’s great for production efficiency but less so for cabin customization.

Rainer von Borstel, senior vice president of the cabin center of excellence, gave the keynote address at the AEEC General Session in Hamburg — my raison d’etre for being in Germany. In no uncertain terms, von Borstel said simpler, more standardized, "plug-and-play" cabins will be needed if Airbus is to manage the steep production ramp-up planned in the next two years.

Last year, Airbus delivered 434 aircraft across all lines, a production rate of about 36 a month, with more than 100 "head-of" versions (HoVs) — custom configured first aircraft used as the basis for following aircraft. The high number of HoVs cannot stand, von Borstel said, when Airbus moves from its current production rate of 41 aircraft per month to 50 per month by 2010.

Customization is "paralyzing production," he said. "If we continue like we are doing it today, we will be dead in a few years.... Less customization on A350 is really necessary in order to cope with the steep production ramp-up that we have to manage."

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