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Redesigning Qantas’s Airbus A380

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Photo: Noah Webb

In fact, inches are a lot harder to come by on the average airliner than they are on a football field, where nobody has to spend hours strapped into a space less than two feet wide and paying customers are allowed to get up whenever they please. Years ago, before air travel became mass transit, things were a little better because airplanes weren’t laid out to maximize the number of seats you could cram into them, and sometimes there was even—no one under 30 will believe this—extra space that could be used for passenger lounges. (Anyone remember the “piano bar” that American Airlines once had on its transcontinental 747’s?)

For a brief moment, it seemed as if the new Airbus A380, the largest passenger plane in the world, might bring some relief. At 239 feet in length—seven feet longer than a 747 but with two full levels along its entire length—the A380 has, if not quite the space of a football field, more room on its two decks than in two tennis courts put together. You ought to be able to loosen things up quite a bit with a couple of tennis courts’ worth of space to play with.

If the airlines choose to, that is. Qantas Airways, the latest carrier to take delivery of an A380—it follows Emirates and Singapore Airlines, which together put eight of the mega-planes into service over the past year—hired Marc Newson, the Australian-born, London-based designer, to reinvent the cabin for its first A380, the ninth to come off the Airbus assembly line. Newson’s assignment, he said to me, was to “design a cool aircraft interior, something that seems to have escaped most airlines.”

I went to Los Angeles to see the plane just after it touched down on American soil for the first time. There is a lot to say about what Newson has produced, most of which is sleek enough to make other airplane interiors feel like your grandmother’s parlor, and a lot to say about the A380, which is quieter and smoother than any jet I have ever ridden on. But if you are an economy passenger, let’s cut to the chase: all that extra space has been used mainly to make room for more seats, not to make more room for each seat. The Qantas A380, Newson said, has roughly an inch more legroom than the economy-class seats on its other airplanes, and most of that inch comes not from spacing seats out more generously, but from a new seat design and from the high-tech materials that have been used to make seat cushions that are much thinner than older ones. (The real reason they are there, however, is because they are lighter, not because they are thinner.) These seats are considerably more comfortable than ordinary economy seats, and Newson has figured out a way to give them a wider-angle recline and a simple, spring-based version of a footrest. But reinventing the economy-class seat means only so much if you can’t reinvent the space into which it is crammed, and I’m not sure that anything is enough to make up for the fact that this is still an awfully small space in which to spend a lot of time.

Qantas has designed its A380 with a total of 450 seats, which is about 40 more than on its 747’s and slightly fewer than Emirates and Singapore have shoehorned in. No airline has come anywhere near outfitting its planes with the maximum number of economy seats, which, if they were allowed to fill the entire plane on both decks, would be a horrifying 853, truly a modern-day version of steerage. As Qantas has configured its plane, there are 14 first-class “suites,” 72 business-class seats, 32 premium economy seats, and 332 economy seats. Even so, the last row of economy is called Row 88, and there is something quite sobering about looking at a boarding pass that says row 88 on it.

You may think that designing the interior of an airline involves making a series of aesthetic decisions, but it is really more a matter of juggling space and money and the marketplace: you make a lot more money from a business- or first-class seat, but each of them takes up a lot more space. Airlines want to avoid ending up with empty economy seats, wasted space that could have been used for business-class seats, which could have been sold at a higher price. But it’s no better to have empty business-class seats hogging space that could have allowed for more economy seats, if that is what is in demand. In the end, figuring out what the airlines call the “layout of passenger arrangement,” or LOPA, is a marketing calculation. If you put the LOPA together with the fact that the physical shell of the plane—not just its overall shape but the location of the doors, the stairs, the windows, and even the service areas—is pretty much fixed, you realize that there isn’t all that much a designer can do. The only real way to reinvent the interior of an airplane is to put fewer people in it.

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