The growth in low-cost carriers (LCC) and desire to increase revenue from aircraft is driving demand for cabin refurbishments.

Airbus detailed some of its new cabin upgrade offerings at the Aircraft Interiors Expo (AIX) in Hamburg in April and at a media briefing at its Toulouse facility.

Among its A320-family cabin upgrade products are SpaceFlex and SmartLav, which permit extra seats—even a whole row of six seats—to be installed. Airbus said the return on investment on this type of upgrade can be seen within 18 months to two years.

In 1998, just 4% of new A320-family aircraft were delivered with maximum seat configurations of 179/180 seats. By 2013, thanks to the growth of LCCs worldwide, that had grown to 40% and today around 60% are delivered with maximum seat-capacity cabins.

For airlines with older A320s that want to stay competitive, or leasing companies that want to make their A320s more attractive to a wider airline base, cabin upgrades are an option that can increase seat capacity to 186.

“We have to keep that big piece of metal in the sky viable in the market,” Airbus head of upgrade services Valerie Manning said. The global retrofit market is worth between $1 billion and $2 billion a year, she added, with half that going to cabin upgrades. The single-aisle market, in particular, is in growth mode, with LCCs driving much of that growth and focused on installing standardized packages.

The Airbus SpaceFlex reconfiguration is offered in two packages; the first contains two larger versions of the SpaceLav and a small galley area installed at the rear of the aircraft in bulkhead space previously not utilized. The second configuration has two smaller SpaceLavs at the rear, but a larger galley.

The first configuration is aimed at LCCs, while the second is aimed at more traditional airlines that need to keep the extra galley space but which are now operating at 90% or higher load factors and want to add seats to accommodate growth.

At AIX, Airbus displayed an A380 cabin mockup with an 11-abreast, 3-5-3 economy seat configuration. Two seating suppliers are supporting the offering—Geven with its Piuma seat and Zodiac with its Z300. Airbus VP cabin marketing Ingo Wuggetzer said discussions were being held with some A380 operators about installing the 11 abreast configuration, which would also require a change in the overhead bins, but there were no commitments yet.

Airbus said for many airlines, the yield focus has shifted from the premium cabin, where it has traditionally been, to how to improve yields and the passenger experience among the three  billion people who fly economy each year. That’s now a significant sector to warrant attention by the airlines. In another growing trend, more than 30% of people who fly internationally now fly premium economy, Wuggetzer said. Five of the 11 A380 operators have premium economy cabins.

“There is a change happening in passenger segmentation and airlines want more seat choice so they can offer products that meet this new focus in airline yield optimization across all cabins,” Wuggetzer said.

Airbus has therefore launched what it calls Airbus Choice seating options for the economy cabins: Premium cabin configured in maximum seat capacity minus two seats per row; comfort cabin in maximum seat capacity minus one seat per row; and budget economy with basic seats at maximum capacity.

Differentiating the brand

For some airlines, however, cabin upgrades are not about adding seats, but about promoting brand—through enhancements such as mood lighting—or turning narrowbodies into three-class configurations so that comfort can be added rather than taken away. Airbus’ Manning said the latter trend is being seen in the US, where airlines such as JetBlue and Virgin America are adding cabins with lie-flat beds on their transcontinental services.

There’s perhaps no more extreme example of that than Etihad Airways’ new Residence and Apartment premium cabins, which are based on the luxury hotel model of branding.

Speaking at the Passenger Experience Conference in Hamburg in April, Etihad VP Calum Laming said, “Our benchmark has always been hospitality and never about other airlines.” When the Abu Dhabi-based airline set about creating luxury “suites” in its premium cabins—dedicating its entire A380 upper deck to premium—it created a single design team consisting of three companies: Honour Branding to oversee design management; Acumen to oversee seat design; and Factorydesign to manage cabin design.

The concept went beyond the spacious, private suites. “We wanted an impressive entrance, just as boutique hotels have beautiful lobbies that hide function,” Honour product and innovation director Michael Crump said. “What we saw with airlines was that the aircraft entry, even for the premium customers, is rather like entering through the back door via the kitchen.”

The premium suites are individualized, like hotel rooms, and feature handmade Arabic carpets, art and wooden tables with hand-carved inlays. All side bins and overhead bins were removed.  “Extravagant? Yes, but it’s innovation like this that lifts people’s imaginations,” Acumen associate Anthony Harcup said.