Panelists speaking at the Passenger Experience Conference in Hamburg believe there is a future for flexible aircraft interiors, although airline take-up to date has been minimal.

“The idea of flexible cabins is not new; it’s been around in our industry for many years. It’s interesting that only a few of these concepts are flying today; there’s only a few that made it to take off,” Recaro Aircraft Seating EVP R&D René Dankwerth said.

Back in the 1990s, Recaro produced a seat that could be converted between economy and business class during turnaround. Since then, many other concepts have been developed. “We believe that, if you do it the right way, there is a huge benefit for the passenger and the airline,” he said.

However, flexibility creates a tradeoff with increased complexity, maintenance and weight—and more recently booking systems limitations—which makes it hard to justify without a clear business case.

“In our industry, we are extremely sensitive to changes regarding weight and complexity,” Dankwerth said. “What happens with flexibility is that you are immediately driving both these factors. From a commercial and ecological perspective, weight increases are horrible and need to be avoided. We need to find a sweet spot to position a concept.”

Dankwerth believes there will be more flexible cabins flying, but there will be faster incremental steps in this area, rather than significant disruption.

National Research Council Canada program leader Dr Anant Grewal agreed that change will happen, but not as aggressively as people expect. “My view is that there are some low hanging fruit to be tapped, but it will be relatively modest,” he said.

At the 2017 Aircraft Interiors Expo, Recaro demonstrated a flexible cabin concept enabling airlines to compress a vacant row during turnaround to create more space for the remaining passengers. While the weight gain was minimal, no airlines have committed to the product concept.

Boeing 787 and Airbus A350 programs cabin design and development specialist Cristian Sutter said part of this reluctance could be because a product that is only made available at the last minute creates questions over how airlines could commercialise the additional space. However, he believes competitive pressures will drive airlines towards more flexible solutions, most likely in terms of greater differentiation within cabins, rather than new cabins.

“Airlines want everything now, for the cheapest price, as unique as possible,” Sutter said. “For it [flexibility] to happen, all the ideal conditions have to be met, but there are lots of good efforts out there. If airlines really want something special, they have to be willing to pay for it and, in general, the aviation industry is reluctant to open its cheque book.”

SR Technics director product development & sales Oladimeji Olukolu agreed that cost and revenue remains a major factor: “If the outcome is not income for the paying party, it’s not going to see the light of day.” Flexibility, he said, depends on suppliers being able to provide innovative products at a reasonable cost.

Scott Savian, who is EVP at Zodiac Aerospace’s ZEO design and innovation studio, said there are a lot of things holding flexibility back. Flexibility has to lead to value creation and an overall solution that works for the airline, manufacturer and cabin supplier. But Savian believes that the ingredients will ultimately come together: “From an equipment supplier standpoint, it absolutely has to. Be flexible or die; that’s where we’re at.”

Boeing Commercial Airplanes payloads supply chain strategy director Doug Ackerman said that it is not uncommon for an aircraft with a life of 18-plus years to go through at least one major interior change during its lifetime.

“What functionality should we design into the airplane? Do we put wiring in for future? If we do, then it costs fuel to carry. At Boeing, we are looking closely at the automotive industry at what is the right number of options. If it is a tremendous number, then airlines get a lot of flexibility, but that makes it difficult for leasing companies. How easy do you make it to customize? Should it be in-production, or after production? How much provision do we put on aircraft to make it customizable?” Ackerman asked.

Ultimately, Ackerman agreed that flexibility has to be there, but he added that this will not be a solution for everyone.

Victoria Moores