By Marisa Garcia
April 08, 2019
Airbus Lowerdeck, Underbelly
Credit: Courtesy of Airbus

The “Lower Deck Passenger Experience Module,” developed by Airbus and Safran, won this year’s Crystal Cabin Award for best Cabin Concept. The idea would turn the under-used space in the belly of the plane (or hold) into a passenger relaxation lounge, offering sleeping berths, meeting spaces and even playrooms.

This concept won the top prize from a panel of judges made up of industry experts, suggesting that even people who work in the airline industry agree that economy passengers should be more comfortable — especially on ultra long-haul flights.

It’s an idea whose time has come. So what’s the hold-up? Part of it is pricing.

Safran crunched the numbers and estimates that airlines could sell the beds for around $600 on top of the economy fare.

While that might sound like a lot of money, Safran argues that it’s much cheaper than a long-haul business class ticket.

Airlines wouldn’t want to lose business class customers by renting beds, so economy passengers flying in the hold would probably not have other business class features like premium dining, larger in-flight entertainment screens, amenity kits, lounge access and VIP services. But they would get a good sleep.

The problem is that airlines would have to lose cargo space in order to install these modules. The airplane’s underbelly stores various systems that keep the plane flying, spare fuel tanks, passenger luggage and a wide range of cargo. That cargo helps cover the cost of the flight so that airlines can offer cheaper tickets to passengers. But cargo is not always steady income.

According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), airline cargo revenue is facing headwinds because of changes in the global economy. On some routes, the hold flies with plenty of room to spare.

Airbus and Safran argue that airlines should give that room to passengers who need it most.

They imagine a combination of experience zones including wellness and social zones, a business center, a children’s play room and, of course, berths.

The two manufacturers have to prove that in each of these cases the space would meet the same safety requirements as the main cabin above. For example, they have to show that the berths would be safe for passengers to sleep in during severe turbulence and they have to demonstrate that passengers can evacuate the belly of the plane safely in an emergency.

At this point, Airbus and Safran tell us they have many of these details worked out. The next problem is persuading airlines to actually transform cargo space into comfort space — and that’s really a matter of money.

Making the case for yoga studios, playrooms, flying offices and lounges is a bit tougher. Airlines would need to justify the expense of installing these custom modules and sacrificing future cargo revenue.

But airlines also know that on ultra long-haul flights, passengers will need a break from sitting in cramped economy seats.

Qantas Airlines, for example, is already asking customers for suggestions to make its future 20-hour flights bearable.

Though the Airbus and Safran Lower Deck Passenger Experience Module won the Crystal Cabin Award, it will be a while before it flies. Still, it is good design thinking.

And, if the airlines are going to push the envelope on aircraft range, they should give passengers somewhere to stretch their legs and get a long, good night's rest.