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Imagining the Perfect Plane

© Courtesy The Boeing Company
Manufacturers rely on travelers' opinions and feelings in designing new aircraft.

As a traveler, you’ve helped design aircraft, seats, lighting, overhead bins and in-flight entertainment systems. You might not even realize the extent of your influence. The aviation industry spends countless hours and millions of dollars probing the minds of travelers to uncover your deepest wishes and darkest fears, all in an effort to win your heart—and your wallet.


Travelers haven’t always brandished such power over aircraft design. You were once like the young children of yesteryear—seen but not heard. Then Airbus and Boeing decided that if you really liked a revolutionary kind of aircraft, you might go out of your way to fly in it. Thus, in a historic move, they picked your brain about potential interiors for the A380 superjumbo and the B-787 Dreamliner, instead of just conferring with the carriers themselves.

These days, manufacturers shun simple focus groups that require a show of hands for likes and dislikes. Instead, they use quantitative and qualitative research methods to dissect your preferences, with key questions buried inside questionnaires and discussion guides so participants might not realize what they’re truly driving at.

Before settling on the dimensions of the A380, Airbus had to determine passengers’ space requirements, says Bob Lange, the company’s head of interiors marketing. So it tested cabin mock-ups with consumer groups in eight cities worldwide, without revealing the aircraft’s ultralarge size. “It was important to remove the size from the equation so we could get valuable and neutral feedback,” Lange explains. What Airbus really wanted to know was how close it could put a passenger next to a curved surface, since the A380’s upper deck walls are quite curved. After questioning 1,200 passengers for hours on a range of subjects, the manufacturer extracted its answer and changed the upper deck design, increasing the distance between the head and shoulder of the window passenger and the sidewall of the aircraft, describes Lange.

Boeing used a number of research methodologies to help develop the interior of the 787, says Blake Emery, director of differentiation strategy for Boeing Commercial Airlines. One involved cultural anthropologist Clotaire Rapaille’s method of tapping into a person’s “reptilian brain” to suss out “what people really want, not what they say they want.” Boeing’s interpretation of the results influenced everything from the aircraft’s lighting to the design of the overhead bins, Emery says. “Others can copy what we’ve done, but if they don’t understand the why, they’ll get it wrong.”

Boeing also asked artists, architects, industrial designers, college students in idealized design and airline branding executives to help the carrier reach a consensus on the ideal interior. Consumers across the globe were asked to relay their most powerful experience while inside an airplane. Americans often cited the first time they flew alone, signaling a rite of passage; Asians spoke more about turbulence and (we can surmise) vulnerability.

The companies distill and interpret all their research, which can produce different outcomes. Take the size of an aircraft’s windows. Boeing’s research suggested that the 787’s windows should be taller than those in today’s planes. Research at Airbus, however, indicated that passengers actually want wider windows, so the A350—launching in late 2013—will have the widest in the industry.


You want an airline seat that maximizes comfort, living space, aesthetics and storage capabilities—but these ideals must be modified by airline requirements for safety, durability, weight and economics. In creating a new seat design, seat manufacturer Recaro conducts focus groups using people of all sizes to test ergonomics and comfort of cushions, backrests and armrest length, says Jean-Pierre Foulon, executive vice president of Recaro Aircraft Seating–Americas. The company also gathers research from airline marketing departments and ergonomics experts at universities.

Your number one concern is more leg room, but airlines want less weight—a challenge for seat makers. Recaro developed a new slimline economy-class seat that increases leg space by up to two inches without compromising comfort, Foulon says. The company also moved the literature pocket from the bottom of the rear backrest to the upper backrest, freeing up more space.

Once a product is developed, airlines test seats on a cross-section of passengers, but especially on the most frequent fliers, he adds. An overnight flight experience, including food and beverage service, may be simulated to test premium seats that fold out into beds.

If you’re not fond of current airline seats, rest assured that new designs are always on the drawing board. An economy class seat’s typical life cycle is 5 to 10 years, says Foulon, while new models are developed about every 5 to 7 years. “It takes about two years to develop a new economy class seat from a white sheet of paper,” he explains.

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