Swappable plane cabins could deliver the freshest flying experience in generations.
A Silicon Valley startup has a plan to disrupt this process and it might just work, because it uses reliable cargo technology.
“One of the earliest inspirations for us is coming from outside the aerospace industry and asking the question of why cabins look the same as they did 90 years ago,” said Jason Chua, project executive for the new “Transpose” cabin developed by A3. “One of the biggest challenges that airlines face is the cost and speed of aircraft cabin configuration. Were focusing on becoming enablers, lowering that cost and risk.”
How Cabins Come Together
For years, the airline industry has put aircraft cabins together the same way: Place a floor panel in the centre of the plane’s interior and fix seats, galleys, and lavatories to that floor panel according a cabin map known in the industry as “Layout of Passenger Accommodation,” or LOPA.
Getting the seats, class dividers, galleys, lavatories, and onboard bars inside requires loading every piece carefully, back to front. Once the components are installed, making any change requires first moving everything else out of the way, then putting it all back in again.
It’s time consuming, labor-intensive, and exhausting, which means airlines wait as long as possible between major cabin changes, sometimes up to 10 years.
We might fly in old cabins, even after an airline introduces a new interior design, because airlines have to wait to take the plane out of service long enough to update it. And airlines may not update older planes if those will come out of service soon.
But A3 has found a practical way to change cabins quickly, without all the hassle.
The “Transpose” program is based on components and processes which already exist: the loading and unloading of cargo cabin containers. These half orange-wedge structures are already approved to be loaded quickly and removed easily, because shippers don’t have time to wait between flights.
“Freighter aircraft have rapid-change interiors, and don't have to invest the money on a ground-up design,” Chua explained. “‘Transpose’ is taking something familiar and allowing you to use it in a different way.”
Shipping containers are pre-loaded, placed onboard and fixed in place for safety, then quickly taken out on the other end. A3 proposes using similar cabin sections, fully outfitted with seats or bars, or new galleys, or sleeper sections, or children’s play areas—the possibilities are endless.
Airlines can load the section they want for a particular flight, without having to take the rest of the airplane cabin apart. “Airlines are really good at planning out logistics and I have no doubt that they'd be able to optimize for these [cabin sections] as well,” Chua said.
“Our goal is to make this as easy to do as you would at any airport that has cargo infrastructure,” Chua said. “We feel it has benefits for everyone. It removes some of the complexity associated with cabin configuration processes, and opens up the possibilities for new experiences.”
Chua also feels this approach could reduce costs on cabin change programs, which will sweeten the deal for price-conscious airlines.
Plug-and-play cabin elements might also make cabin cleaning and repairs easier. When passengers wear out a section of the plane, that section can be removed for care and maintenance and replaced with an identical, fresh section.
Disruption, Inside Out
While A3 works “outside” the industry, it has an insider advantage which means the project is more likely to succeed. This startup is part of the Airbus family.
“We're working on things that are disruptive to the group; hoping to disrupt ourselves before someone else does,” Chua said. A3 works independently on “blue sky” programs, but gets grounded insights from Airbus colleagues to ensure these high-concept solutions are deliverable.
“We are geographically separated from Europe but combine the best of both worlds, leveraging the deep expertise that Airbus has, working with folk in Europe, liaising with engineering,” Chua said.
The next stage for Transpose is to gain feedback from airlines and passengers. The company will build a mock-up early next year so that airlines and flyers can take a closer look. Chua said A3 could deliver a prototype system towards the end of next year.
“We expect a large diversity of ideas to come from third parties, and we’re excited to see what other people want to see onboard the airplane,” Chua said.
If all goes well, plug-and-play cabins could be flying soon. And if they do, the skies will never be the same.