AIRBUS has whipped up some publicity with the launch of the second part of its vision of what passenger aircraft might look like in 2050. Last year it unveiled a “concept plane”—now it’s the concept cabin.
It’s not overly easy to understand what this concept is. The new cabin “has an integrated ‘neural network’ creating an intelligent interface between passenger and plane”. It replaces today’s classes of seating (economy, business, etc) with zones tailored to the needs of each passenger. And its cabin walls become transparent when required, giving “open panoramic views” (and scaring the bejaysus out of the more nervous flyers).
Gulliver said last year when Airbus launched its concept plane, “Guessing the future and putting forward dreamy designs is a sensible activity for any technologically obsessed company. It makes them look dynamic and creative, without committing them to any definite action.” It’s the same this time round. Airbus can talk about all the environmentally friendly things it will be doing by 2050, and suggest that passengers will be sitting in seats that morph to their shape, getting up only to play virtual golf or have an acupuncture session. But it offers no time-line, and its press release contains a sizeable get-out clause: “Such technologies are already being developed and, while they may not be seen in the exact same manner as in the Airbus Concept Plane and Cabin, some of them could feature in future Airbus aircraft programmes”.
Another odd aspect of Airbus’s talk of cabin interiors is that it is the airlines that will decide what actually goes inside the craft. The planemaker’s proposals for “vitalising zones” are all very appealing. But an airline choosing between a “vitalising zone” and, say, another two rows of seating has an easy decision.
To put these kinds of futurist exercise in perspective, have a look at this picture of an airplane interior from 1971. You’ll notice that advances in cabin design in the last 40 years have been pretty minimal. With airlines operating on such razor-thin margins, and passengers choosing their tickets according to price, it’s not clear why the advances in the next 40 years should be any more notable.