The future of flight is customizable: Introducing Transpose

As consumers, we have endless choices and options to customize when it comes to just about anything, from our mobile phones, the way we purchase goods, and even with the way we bank. But compared to the dizzying pace of innovation and expansion of options we've experienced in other parts of our lives, the air travel experience can sometimes seem... well, commoditized. Why can't we have the same level of choice and customization in air travel? Why, despite incredible overall advances in commercial aircraft, do most cabins fundamentally look the same as they did when air travel started a century ago-seats arranged in forward facing rows?

Introducing Transpose

For the past year, I've been working on Transpose: a clean-sheet rethinking of aircraft cabin architecture and passenger experience possibilities.

You might be surprised how difficult it is to change aircraft cabin layouts as it stands today. Even moving a bathroom forward or backwards a few feet can kick off extensive structural engineering and testing work. This seemingly simple modification also triggers important, but time intensive, regulatory procedures to ensure safety. Why? Because the way we manufacture and update aircraft cabins is highly integrated with the other systems onboard. This is a major reason that airlines change their cabins so infrequently (7-10 years on average), and when they do, we mostly see conservative and incremental improvements.

So in order to create new passenger experience possibilities, we must first work to simplify the process of customizing aircraft cabins. We're doing this with the development of a modular aircraft cabin, and by giving the ecosystem of airlines, manufacturers, passengers and regulators the tools to rapidly bring more diverse experiences to market.

Our focus is threefold:

  • Demonstrate the technical feasibility of building and operating a modular commercial aircraft cabin system.
  • Validate passenger enthusiasm for the new in-flight experiences this makes possible.
  • Close a business case that makes all of this not only desirable, but feasible-and soon.

If we're successful, we believe we can reduce the time it takes to customize an aircraft cabin by a factor of three, and take the speed of aircraft reconfiguration from weeks to hours, or even minutes.

Ultimately, that means an incredible expansion and enhancement of the breadth of in-flight experiences that can be offered by airlines.

Imagine an afternoon flight landing at San Jose airport. The passengers deplane, and within minutes the seats in the cabin are being swapped out for bunks, making the aircraft's next route: a 12 hour redeye to Singapore-a much more restful experience for passengers. That same plane could then be used for a short flight to Macau-in which the airline could swap out a sleeper cabin for a spa chain, ready to service vacationers eager to start their travels refreshed.

You might say to yourself, Okay, I think I've heard this one before. Seems a little pie in the sky.

The idea of modular aircraft is not new. What makes Transpose different, is that we don't require a completely new kind of aircraft or the fundamental redesign of airport infrastructure-developments that would take decades and billions of dollars. Modular aircraft cabins already exist... in the form of freighter variants of large commercial aircraft.

This is our starting point: iterating on this already modular, but spartan platform, we're able to redesign passenger support systems from the ground up to be more flexible, enabling them to be connected and disconnected easily from aircraft. Additionally, we're taking an ecosystem approach to this challenge, drawing upon expertise and leveraging best practices from multiple industries. With this strategy starting with a flying plane, and working with a set of best-in-their-field partners-Transpose is both achievable and pragmatic.

Here's a visual overview of how the system works.

How does this affect you, the passenger? Well, first and foremost, we believe that this project will enable entirely new categories of passenger experiences, making your time spent in the sky more interesting, personalized, and enjoyable.

  • A gym could fill a module with exercise bikes, and give folks the opportunity to stay active.
  • A major coffee chain could run a co-working cafe, providing artisanal beverages and a space for collaboration.
  • An airline could design a kid-safe play zone (lined with sound absorbing materials) where families can spend quality time together.
  • A seat manufacturer could test out a new sleeper seat before widely rolling out the product.

You're probably thinking, Sounds nice, but expensive. We're convinced that this won't be the case. Besides providing an unprecedented amount of choice and flexibility for passengers, our modeling and research shows that many experiences can be provided with little to no increase in the amount passengers currently pay for comparable experiences on the ground. Additionally, we've identified significant opportunities for advertisers and businesses to provide new revenue to airlines, potentially sidestepping the need to pass on some costs to passengers.

A Pragmatic Approach For the Air Travel Ecosystem

Besides new revenue streams, Transpose enables significant savings for airlines. A modular cabin architecture eliminates aircraft downtime due to customization operations, which can currently take up to a month to complete. Add to this the increased flexibility in cabin design options, and the potential for vastly improved passenger experiences, and you've got what we think is a pretty compelling way for airlines to differentiate and offer more choice to their customers.

Manufacturers of aircraft and aircraft interiors benefit too. Transpose allows aircraft manufacturers to deliver finished aircraft to customers more quickly. Currently, work on cabin interiors can't begin until the final weeks of the manufacturing process, but modular cabin interiors could be developed on a parallel timetable with the core fabrication of the aircraft itself.

Transpose also makes the job of specialized aircraft interiors manufacturers less complex. With current design and manufacturing processes, cabin suppliers and integrators must navigate a number of complicated and interrelated systems, such as segregated electrical systems, zoned temperature controls, and bundles of in-flight entertainment wiring-all while making sure that, the full aircraft as a system still addresses with certification requirements, cabin safety concerns, and passenger experience guidelines. With a modular architecture, the integration of these systems and compliance with overall aircraft requirements are built into a set of streamlined module design rules. This system allows suppliers to focus their energies on building compelling experiences rather than on byzantine integration challenges.

We believe this will free existing suppliers to create more diverse offerings, and enable new companies otherwise unable to enter the commercial flight market do so. With Transpose, companies that currently make galleys can make flight-ready kitchen and restaurant modules, expanding their product line (and potentially, margins). A southeastern hospitality brand can offer its services on international flights through pod-hotel modules, reaching new prospective customers. A midwestern automotive manufacturer can use their industrial expertise to create comfortable lounge modules in America, while leveraging Transpose's certification resources.

Looking Ahead

We aim to have Transpose-enabled aircraft flying within a few years. Is that ambitious? Absolutely. But if we keep up our current pace, I think it's completely achievable. For the past year, our lean A3 team has recruited a great group of engineers, designers, and researchers from across the globe. We are also working closely with Airbus Group's renowned experts in cabin and airframe engineering, as well as with Airbus industrial design. Together, we've kicked off manufacturing work around an initial module, and a full-sized aircraft mockup. Additionally, we've already started conversations with regulators.

And while we've accomplished a lot, we're counting on a lot of help from you.

Specifically, we're developing Transpose in as open a manner as possible. We're not working in stealth behind a closed hangar door because the complexity of this project demands a range of disciplines and expertise that's not available in any single place.

We'll need the best partners we can find, both from within and outside of Airbus Group. We're already working with NK Labs to develop innovative engineering solutions, New Territory to create a flexible yet cohesive design language and Motivo Engineering to build our first prototypes, and Nielsen Consumer Neuroscience to better understand how passengers respond to novel in-flight environments. We are excited to keep working with them and others to create the future of flight.