In recent years Japan Airlines (JAL) has scooped up awards for its cabin interiors. Now the carrier has been honoured with a Good Design Award by The Chicago Athenaeum: museum of architecture and design for its scoopalicious chopsticks for first class dining.
Made of cedar wood, the smooth surfaced chopsticks have been slightly narrowed towards their upper ends to make them easier and more comfortable to grip.
Essentially, these chopsticks were created for those of us who don't use chopsticks on a regular basis but would like to look like we do (because it just looks cool, alright?)
But back to those JAL interiors. Last summer JAL began operating US routes with a luxurious new suite for its first class passengers and a top-notch business-class offering.
UK-based design firm James Park Associates (JPA) is the brainchild behind these seats, as well as the highly-acclaimed Singapore Airlines A380 business class seat.
I recently had the chance to chat with James Park about these products and what he sees happening in interiors in the future (we know what he thinks about stacked sleepers in economy). Oh yes, and we also discussed a new economy class seat now under development by JPA!
The JAL first class seat, fitted to the carrier's Boeing 777-300ER fleet, is "a very good seat" says Park, "because it provides, in an elegant and understated way, everything you'd want and expect to see in a first class cabin".
"From that point of view it's a very good design solution and it shows that radical design is not always the answer - that notions of quality, comfort, elegance and versatility are very much valued by the customer. Meeting those demands, and addressing weight and cost of ownership, with creativity and innovation is what will shape the future of aircraft interiors," he adds.
So what will the aircraft interior of the future look like? Will it be more of the same?
"It's a mixture of idealism and reality, compromise and ambition - they all meld together to take things forwards," says Park. "It would be nice to see some radical changes but having said that, aircraft interiors have improved enormously over the last 15 years. In every class, we need to find ways of designing seats that are lighter, more comfortable, have low cost of ownership and are less expensive to purchase.
"As in any business, the big carriers are always looking for new ideas and ways to improve their offer, over and above that of their competitors. SIA did it in 2007 with their A380 and we are really proud of the business class seat we designed for them (below right). In 2008, Japan Airlines took a very different approach."
Park says that while the latest economy class offering on SIA's A380 is "a significant improvement" on what has been offered previously by other airlines and likely "qualifies as number one at the moment", generally he is not seeing a quantum leap in the economy class seats offered on long haul at the moment.
"When we refer to not seeing a quantum leap in economy class seating, I'm comparing it to the dramatic changes and product development in first and business class cabins. Of course, the challenges are different - it's extremely difficult to keep the ticket price low whilst providing massive improvements in the comfort and amenity in the seat," says Park.
"Significant change in economy seating requires a lot of research and development and the cost of that is enormous. The aviation industry isn't like the motor industry where huge sums can be invested in R&D and huge risks can be taken because millions of units are going to be sold. With an aircraft seat, the investment is followed by a fairly limited production run and fairly small margins, so the risks are higher and the returns are lower. These are not ideal circumstances for developing something radically different."
By contrast, there has been an incremental improvement in premium in recent years. Says Park: "I would be very disappointed if the [Boeing] 787 didn't at least match the Airbus A380 (see pic at right), which is nice and spacious, well lit, with good air conditioning. All in all it's a very comfortable airplane to fly in and Boeing will have to work hard to improve on it. I would imagine that is just what they are trying to do!"
So what is JPA designing for economy class cabins?
"One of the things that we're working on is a seat that is very simple, very low cost, very comfortable and with very few part numbers," says Park.
"Cost of ownership is quite low and it will have quite a radical look when it comes to market. We are a little way off launching it, yet, but it will be quite unlike anything you've seen before. I can't give any details until we go into production, but we are looking to use new materials and that brings with a whole new set of risks and challenges, as the testing process is, rightly, quite tough and onerous. We have to build seats and aviation interiors that are compliant and to do that there are a lot of materials you can't use."
Thanks James. I'm looking forward to seeing what this new radical econo seat will look like. Until then, I'll comfort myself with more pics of how the other half lives and sleeps on JAL.