Last Wednesday, I attended the London unveiling of “Airspace by Airbus“- the European aircraft maker’s bold strategy to create a distinctive cabin brand that it hopes will represent the pinnacle of passenger comfort and aircraft operational performance.
I must confess to being perplexed by what Airbus could possibly display in the tiny Searcys space on the top floor of the Gherkin building, especially on a cold and grey London morning. Luckily, Airbus had quite a bit of colorful things to show off and I was intrigued on what Airspace was all about and when we might start seeing it on actual Airbus aircraft.
Upon arrival, we were whisked up to the 39th floor, offered breakfast canapés, juice, and coffee, then ushered to our seats by the friendly Airbus PR team. Following a respectful round of applause in solidarity for the very recent terrorist atrocities in Brussels, Dr. Kiran Rao (EVP Strategy and Marketing), Ingo Wuggetzer (VP, Cabin Marketing), and Francois Caudron (Senior VP, Marketing) took to the stage to introduce Airspace by Airbus.
Airbus has generally focused its marketing on aircraft performance and efficiency – the usual pitch to airlines eager to manage their cost base so vigorously. Why, then, would the aircraft manufacturer care so much about the look and feel of the interior? This is traditionally the domain of the airlines, many of whom manage their branding equally vigorously. Well, Airbus intends to begin tapping directly into passenger sentiment. And not just the premium passengers, but the three billion economy class ticket holders who take to the skies each year, and tell the rest of the world about it on social media.
Airbus has long been proud to offer an 18-inch seat width as the the factory preset (taking a swipe at 17.2″ and 16.9″ respectively), however Airspace seeks to go further by creating the perfect cabin space as the default setting. Airspace puts economy passengers fully front and center (for design purposes, of course, not in the aircraft) in accordance with what Airbus calls, the four pillars of Airspace: Comfort, Ambiance, Services, and Design.
Now, I could regale you with an in-depth analysis about what those four pillars mean to Airbus, including the perception of greater space, the ergonomic design, the clever use of mood lighting, and the quietest cabin in class. The video above lets you watch the presentation video for yourself. As the Zohan would say, it is silky-smooth. Impressive.
Like most of the journalists there on the ground, I was more interested in why this strategy was being launched with the A330neo’s arrival in 2017, and not with the earlier A350 XWB, and more importantly, how this would sit with airlines’ own cabin strategy, especially with the growth of cabin “densification.”
I asked Airbus Head of Architecture & Industrial Design Paul Edwards why Airspace had not been launched with the A350, an aircraft that had been given as much attention in the opening presentations as the A330neo. He said that many of the Airspace design principles had already been mapped out on the A350, but that they had not considered marketing them the under a label with which consumers could identify.
The A330neo’s entry into service in 2017 provides the perfect lead-in time to support Airspace and build brand awareness. Nevertheless, as Dr. Rao had earlier said in his presentation, “I am keen for people to start realizing that it is an ‘Airspace’ cabin rather than it being an A350 or an A330 one.”
So will airlines respond to consumer demands for an Airspace-equipped fleet as standard (both in wide-body and eventually narrow-body aircraft), if the Airspace campaign gains traction? Is Airbus treading on airlines’ livery-colored toes and will Airspace cause confusion, or simply fade into the background?
Francois Caudron, SVP Marketing, was coy in his response to a small group of us at the end of the morning. He recognized that the look and feel of the cabin will essentially be defined by the airline and, with a palette of 16 million colors to choose from, passengers will certainly know on which airline they are flying. However, requested changes to the fundamentals of Airspace will be a matter of (no doubt heavy) negotiation between Airbus and its clients.
In the film, they unfortunately only show business class seats. I think that’s a pity because the message that Airbus most definitely sought to deliver was that it was all about the comfort of those in “cattle class.” To be fair, they did not shy away from the fact that 9-, 10-, and even 11-abreast configurations (on board the A380) would, on some level, present a challenge to Airspace.
In appropriate Gallic fashion, it reminded me of Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous quote that “hell is other people.” And, more to the point, Prince Philip’s gaffe in 2002 saying that, “If you travel as much as we do, you appreciate the improvements in aircraft design of less noise and more comfort, provided you don’t travel in something called economy class, which sounds ghastly.” The virtual reality headset tour (because they weren’t about to lug a mock-up A330 cabin interior all the way to the top of the Gherkin – the mock-up will be on display at the Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg next month) was fun and painted a different picture.
I am generally aircraft manufacturer-agnostic. I do not subscribe to the Boeing vs. Airbus debate. I love the 747 “Queen of the Skies” as much as I do the A380. That said, how the other manufacturers respond to Airspace may become a matter of (heated) debate. Overall, I think Airspace is a shrewd, long-term move on the part of Airbus. It’s a seemingly nonchalant gimmick on the surface, but listening to what the traveling public at large wants might prove to be a cunning strategy to retain and cement Airbus’ position in a competitive global market.