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Why Airplane Cabin Design Is the Worst

Engineers and airlines only care about getting their planes into the air. If you want a bigger cabin, get ready to fly without windows and other requisite comforts.
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(Photo: caribb/Flickr)

(Photo: caribb/Flickr)

Think back on the last time you had a seat near the back of the plane. Fast forward to that moment right after touchdown, when the jet finally rolled to a stop, when that sweet, sweet seat belt sign dinged off. Now, inhale all the stress that came with knowing you'd have to sit/stand there like an idiot while the other idiots in front of you just wouldn't get out of the damn way.

It's not fun. Airplane cabin design is, in fact, atrocious. The seats are lousy, the privacy non-existent, and the bathroom is appropriate only for dolls. To paraphrase David Byrne, how did we get here?

“Arguably, aircraft interiors haven't been designed,” says Paul Wylde, the CEO and creative director of his own airplane design company. Wylde has been in the industry for over two decades. What Wylde means is that, rather than designers making the choices when it comes to airplane cabins, it's the engineers—trying to get the bird off the ground, with the largest amount of paying customers inside—who are in control.

"I'd probably rather design a viable, exciting proposition for an airship. Airplanes are probably yesterday's technology."

“The key issue is weight reduction,” Wylde says. “That is the single most important criteria of any aircraft design.”

Want to add windows for a better viewing experience? The reinforcement surrounding the glass will add extra bulk. Want to expand the bathroom to accommodate the modern American body? The same logic applies. “Any innovation literally has to buy itself on the aircraft,” Wylde says. “If we're looking to install something new, there either has to be a weight saving or a new revenue generation stream to justify that element.”

There are other things to consider as well: Ease of retrofitability is another significant factor because refurbished planes need to get back in the air as quickly as possible. Hand installation is also preferable, to keep costly new tools and mechanics' overtime from busting the budget. Finally, the new design needs to not really look like a new design at all.

See, plane manufacturers have one customer: Airlines. And the airlines want a mostly-blank canvas they can customize to fit with their brand experience. (Virgin America and JetBlue, for instance, utilize the same class of planes, but their cabin experiences are markedly different.) The trick, then, is being creative without showing off said creativity. “Boeing's 787 interior is the first interior that's really thought of as an experience,” Wylde says. “But Boeing's running into some problems because it's so distinctive. Airlines are worried they can't express their brand.”

An interior is also a balancing act between, as Wylde puts it, “the macro and the micro” of the traveling experience. The macro is that first impression when you step on board, when flight attendants say “hi,” when the lighting scheme hits your eyes and you see how vault-like the cockpit doors look. That shifts to the micro when you find your seat and strap yourself into that mini-prison cell for the duration. This micro area also has to be utilized by a variety of passengers: the business-tripper, the overnight couple, the large family who wants to turn a row into their own private suite. “It's a delicate balancing act,” Wylde says.

These are excuses for why interiors are inherently bad. There's more, too: the fixed costs of gas and labor, the lengthy certification process for every new piece of equipment added. (Of course, airlines might also have a financial incentive to make their passengers miserable: Customers will purchase more beer and other extra services to escape the drudgery.)

SO, OK, FIXING ALL the problems is perhaps an impossible undertaking. But, what if we just focused on fixing a single problem? Namely, the one I opened with: the general annoyance of entry onto, and exit from, an airplane.

"If you make the freeway wider, it just encourages more traffic onto the roads. People should be discouraged from bringing so much crap in the first place."

(Before getting any further, it's worth pointing out that Wylde cuts this proposal off at the knees. “From an airline perspective, to be honest, that hasn't been a significant criteria for the last 15 years for me,” Wylde says. “No client has made that a purposeful ambition.”)

Logically, one simple way to make things go more smoothly is to expand the doors to allow more space for entry and exit. Seems simple enough. But, in doing that, you'd be forced to reinforce the material around the door, adding extra weight to the cabin, breaking the most important rule in aircraft design. No solution there.

How about a more ordered system of getting on and off? That brings into question the ability of people to follow instructions, something even the most pure idealist won't believe in after only a few hours in rush hour traffic. And really, there's already the group boarding system in place on many airlines, and that doesn't seem to speed anything up.

Wylde, however, points the problem in a different direction altogether. “Your first challenge is all about the overhead bag,” he says. That, after all, is what is holding the movement up.

It didn't used to be this way. Before charging for checked bags became the norm, most folks just checked and forgot, unless they had a legitimate reason (such as a baby traveling with them, and the various cleaning agents and methods of distraction that come with that responsibility) or psychological stress (from recently having a bag lost by the airline, say). Now, however, there's a financial incentive to cram as much as possible into the overhead bins.

The problem is getting worse too, in a self-fulfilling prophecy kind of way. Airlines have been noticing passengers don't have enough overhead space, so new designs include wider and deeper bins. Wylde, for one, doesn't see this as a particularly astute solution. “If you make the freeway wider, it just encourages more traffic onto the roads,” he says. “People should be discouraged from bringing so much crap in the first place.”

HOW WOULD WYLDEFIX this, and all of the other problems with cabin design? The answer is by changing what people think airplane travel is.

“No windows, because windows add weight,” he begins. And remove the various walls so you see “all the pipes and electrical systems,” like the interior of a downtown loft. Most importantly, “take away the overhead bins.” No overnight bag would be allowed, only a briefcase. (Wylde's plan also calls for a clothing “vending machine” in the arrival city's airport, turning airlines into more of a concierge industry.) Wylde admits if this is going to be sold to the public, it has to be about more than just convenience. “If you're going to burn fossil fuel for speed, you're going to have to pay the price,” he says. “Sustainability is about to be the single most important influence in how we live.”

Wylde points out that it takes a decade to design a new plane, from concept to construction. And certain scientists claim there's about 50 years of economically mine-able oil left. “In theory, we have two aircraft platforms left to design.”

The future of air travel, to Wylde, looks a lot more like luxury ocean liners of the past. They'll take three days to get across the continent, but they will be comfortable days, he stresses, with your own cabin and private workspace. Which is probably why, when asked about airplane fixes, he doesn't seem particularly enthusiastic about the whole idea. “I'd probably rather design a viable, exciting proposition for an airship,” Wylde says. “Airplanes are probably yesterday's technology.”