Airlines go all out to unseat rivals
IN A confidential test lab in a remote office park near the Frankfurt airport, a small Lufthansa team had been holed up for five years, refining one of the German airline's most-closely-guarded secrets. They called it the V concept.
About 2m long and 60cm wide, the V concept is the German carrier's latest weapon in the fierce competition among global airlines. It is designed to withstand shocks 16 times the force of gravity and comes with a cosy padded footrest.
It is a new Business-class seat, and if you are travelling round trip from Frankfurt, Germany, to New York, it can be yours for about US$5,000 (S$6,400).
"Business class is where competition really is serious," said Mr Bjorn Bosler, the airline's manager for passenger-experience design, business and premium, who led Lufthansa's team of dozens of seat designers and engineers.
Mr Bob Lange, senior vice-president and head of market and product strategy at Airbus, the European plane maker, agreed: "There's an arms race going on among carriers."
Billions are being spent on research and development, architects, industrial designers and even yacht designers to pack seats with engineering innovations and fancy features. Just fabricating a single Business-class seat can cost up to US$80,000; custom-made First-class models run from US$250,000 to US$500,000.
Travellers in Business and First class may represent 10 to 15 per cent of long-haul seats globally, but they account for up to half of the revenue of airlines like Lufthansa or British Airways, said Mr Samuel Engel, a vice-president at ICF SH&E, an aviation consulting firm.
Carriers vying for the attention of these passengers, who have money or corporate accounts that pay for their travel, are counting on good design to escape the grinding commodity nature of their business.
But there is only so much space inside a plane. As the more-lucrative seats expand, the coach section often contracts, with more seats jammed into the same cabin space and more discomfort for coach passengers.
"The seat is one of the few elements that an airline can actually make its own," said Ms Patricia Bastard, an architect and designer who has worked with Air France on its First-class cabin. "Seats are unique to the airline. Seats are critical."
Lufthansa, Europe's largest airline and the world's fourth-largest in terms of passengers, is investing US$4 billion to improve its cabins, offer satellite-based Internet and upgrade its onboard entertainment system.
But the new Business-class seat, which first appeared last year on the company's new Boeing 747-8 planes, is perhaps its boldest attempt to woo high-value passengers.
The seat research, design, manufacture and installation account for roughly a third of that US$4-billion investment, said Mr Bosler. Eleven planes are now outfitted with the new seats, and Lufthansa is expected to install about 7,000 of them on 100 wide-body planes by 2015.
The growth of carriers from the Middle East and Asia also set off a transformation in cabin design.
Emirates, for instance, created semi-enclosed suites for its First-class passengers. It installed showers on its Airbus A380 double-decker planes, as well as large bars behind the Business-class cabin where passengers could mingle throughout the flight.
Business travellers are expected to spend US$273 billion this year on airfares, according to forecast by the Global Business Travel Association, a 4.3 per cent gain from last year.
But finding the right balance between space, comfort and seat features is tricky.
Airlines are trying increasingly to fit fully-flat beds in Business class. But flat seats require more space, which typically means losing about 10 per cent of the Business-class seats.
British Airways, struggling to fit a 1.85m bed inside the 1.2m separating two seats, came up with a design in which half its passengers sit facing backward. This means the airline can pack 56 Business seats in just seven rows aboard some Boeing 777s.
Other formations include a design known as the herringbone, which is used by Virgin Atlantic. Seats are staggered diagonally, allowing tighter spacing between the seats.
The latest trend is higher-density seating, now used on Emirates, Swiss and Delta, with slightly shorter beds and narrower seats.
"It's a very demanding environment," said Mr James Park, a designer based in London who has worked with Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific.
"A Business-class seat has to be a working desk, an entertainment centre, a dining facility, and it's also a bed. It also needs to be comfortable in all those configurations."
Passengers still pick airlines based on the availability of flights and schedule, said Mr Lange of Airbus.
"But the cabin product is now right behind that."