As the first ultra long-haul aircraft enter service, airlines and interiors companies are more reluctant than ever to invest or innovate

Having seen their second film, played the computer games, watched the news more than once, done some laptop work, read the newspapers, realised that the inflight magazine is the same as the one on the outbound journey, eaten several meals or snacks and slept for several hours, passengers on a 14h flight from, say, Japan to the UK have had about as much as they can take. They just want to get off.

But aircraft coming into service soon will be able to fly another four hours with a normal payload. These machines, designed to test the endurance of any human being, include the Airbus A340-500, the forthcoming A380, and a proposed high-gross-weight version of the Boeing 777. Airlines offering ultra-long-range non-stop routes have to consider the risk - unless they find new ways of keeping passengers happy and comfortable - of an increase in air-rage incidents and media-hyped deep vein thrombosis (DVT) cases, as well as simple customer reluctance to submit themselves to the experience again.

Justin Green of lawyers Kreindler and Kreindler says that passenger litigation on DVT at present would struggle, for lack of research evidence on the subject, to pin blame on an airline. The Warsaw Convention, says Green, at present puts the responsibility on passengers for taking reasonable precautions to ensure their own health if they know they are going to fly. For the airlines, Green says, "it's a warning issue at this stage". The implication is that it may not stay that way. Dubai-based Emirates says its passengers are offered plenty of warning, advice, and exercise equipment designed to reduce DVT risk.

The overpowering desire of a passenger approaching the end of a long flight is a need to escape from imprisonment in his seat. There is no comparable environment in which people submit themselves to such tight personal confinement for such a long time. Most airlines, however, still cite the fact that this confinement is voluntary as a reason for not considering alternative cabin layouts, or different ways of providing cabin service.

In addition, the cabin furnishings and equipment manufacturers are not coming up with anything radically new, as the April 2002 Aircraft Interiors Expo at Hamburg, Germany has just proved, because airlines are not demanding it. They are mostly producing improved versions of conventional cabin furnishing because that, they say, is all their customers - the airlines - demand. The fact that the ultimate customers are fare-paying passengers does not appear to enter the equation as it is perceived today. A factor adding to the unwillingness to commit themselves to innovation, airlines admit, is the fear that 11 September might have changed the rules, ushering in a new era in which low fares, no frills and good business value are king. Although the aircraft interiors industry is not the only sector hit by airline retrenchment, the recently published figures of US cabin furnishing giant B/E Aerospace tell the story. For fiscal year 2002, BEA declared a net loss of $104 million (Flight International, 16-22 April)

Having a good in-flight entertainment (IFE) system is the most common reason touted by long-haul airlines for not needing to do anything new with the cabin. But there is a limit to how much conventional IFE input most human beings can take in a single dose.

The launch customers for the giant A380 airliners are surprisingly reluctant, given the potential for favourable publicity, to talk even in general terms about how they plan to use the unprecedented spacial flexibility in their new twin-deck 550-seater. In some of its advertisements for the A380, Airbus shows passengers wandering around an uncluttered onboard shopping mall. But fast-growing Emirates, declaring itself "conservative" in its approach to fitting out this aircraft, says it does not want to show its hand to the competition beyond revealing that its early delivery A380s will have 575 seats and be used mainly on the eight-hour Dubai-London Heathrow trunk route.

No motive

Emirates' current traffic projections for slot-constrained Heathrow indicate that, by 2006 when the first A380s are delivered, it would be able to fill 1,125 seats on each of its present departures unless it can get more slots, so it has no motive to equip its big new jets with shopping malls.

Yet Emirates has recently run a 16h transpolar trial service between Dubai and Los Angeles, so there is no doubt about its plans to expand some routes on its network beyond long haul to ultra-long haul.

Virgin Atlantic, another A380 customer and an airline that is not normally shy about its plans, has plenty of ideas but emphasises that it does not have to freeze its chosen A380 cabin layout plan for another three years yet. The airline says: "We are committed to seeing innovations for the economy passengers as well as the business passengers who see innovations on a fairly regular basis." Ideas that cater for the passenger desire to get up and move about include selling duty free goods from an onboard shop or stall that people could visit. This contrasts with buying from a trolley in the aisle, where the cabin crew block the route to the toilets and watch customers squirm under their seat-belts to retrieve wallets buried in pockets or among the overnight detritus cluttering their tiny space.

The shop concept is scarcely a revolutionary one. Several Boeing 747 operators already announce a last opportunity to buy goods from the inflight magazine catalogue by visiting one of the galley areas.

But the A380's space, says Virgin, would be far more tolerant of passenger movement about the cabin than current aircraft, so an economy class stand-up bar for serving drinks and snacks, and perhaps space for socialising, is more likely to be viable, just as it is in virtually all the airline's 747 and A340 "Upper Class" cabins. "Imaginative" inflight use of the space near the A380's 12 full-size doors is another economy class cabin possibility, says Virgin, conceding that every idea has to be tested against safety considerations and rules.

Galleys themselves have advanced dramatically in technology and design over the last 20 years, according to Blackpool, UK-based aircraft equipment manufacturers Aerolux. Managing director Ken Metcalfe points to dispensers that can handle high quality cleverly unit-packaged fresh products, like ground coffee that would please an Italian palate, and cooking equipment that makes it worth carrying a chef for first class. Meanwhile there is less of the old merciless stainless steel galley facade, and more of the potential to make the galley look and feel like a pleasant social space for snack dispensing between meal services.

Passengers could help themselves to cold drinks from the refrigerator, for example. The formidable amount of galley trash that will be produced in servicing the needs of an A380-full of people can be dealt with by waste-compacting units, and through sink-based waste disposal units that consign food waste to the toilet tanks, while reducing the incidence of plumbing blockages.

Small touches

Most other Virgin ideas verge on the cosmetic, but enough small touches could influence passenger perception favourably. Designating male and female toilets is a simple but particularly popular idea, Virgin says, with the female traveller. Males could be persuaded of the virtues, the airline believes, by ensuring that there are enough lavatories and that their own are stocked with appropriate male toiletries housed in a cubicle designed for standing up - for shaving, for example. Business class passengers might be able to be offered onboard showers, says Virgin, because systems for purifying and recycling washing water are already available. The option of below-deck lavatories, crew rest compartments, and galleys in the Airbus widebodies and 777, would widen the choice available to airlines for cabin configurations without taking up passenger accommodation.

Many business and first class cabins already offer comfort by virtue of seat pitch and seat size, but there is precious little innovation apparent. An exception - British Airways' recent massive investment in long-haul business-class seats that convert to beds with privacy partitions - is drawing jeers from some commentators while the industry languishes in the frugal post-11 September market.

Unless, however, that notorious terrorist event has killed forever the kind of differential treatment the business traveller had become accustomed to in return for the premium fare, design innovators like BA might turn out to have the last laugh when the cyclical upturn comes.

Source: Flight International