What Happens When An Aircraft Cabin Is Refitted?

Today’s aircraft manufacturers build planes to last. But while an aircraft can stay structurally sound for years, other parts of the plane can show obvious signs of wear and tear. Nowhere is this more apparent than in aircraft cabins. No-one likes stepping into a tired and worn cabin with out-of-date seats and vintage IFE. Airlines know this, and to stay competitive, cabin refits have become part of an aircraft’s lifecycle.

Airlines need to refresh their aircraft cabins constantly to stay competitive. Photo: O’Hare International Airport

While aircraft manufacturers usually sell plenty of new planes, growing global demand for travel drives many of those sales. Right now, that growth is on pause, but it won’t stay on pause forever. Once a plane is in service, airlines expect to get a lot of flying miles out of them. It’s not unusual, even in places like the United States, to be on a commercial airliner that’s 20 plus years old.

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A plane’s exterior may age gracefully and remain structurally sound. Top shelf maintenance can keep everything safe. But airline interiors don’t stay factory fresh for long. Throw in competition and continuing innovation around aircraft seats and cabin interiors, and airlines are turning more and more to cabin refits as a cost-effective and viable way to update their planes.

A lot of forward planning is involved

A couple of years ago, Qantas said it would start refurbishing the cabins on its A380s. It was a reasonably comprehensive refit. In the main cabin, the refit involved updating the IFE systems and improving the seat padding.

In premium economy, entirely new seats went in. Upstairs, in business class, the 2012 era Skybeds got replaced with the latest version of the Qantas’ Business Suites. In first class, the seats got overhauled with new, contoured cushioning and a larger, higher-resolution IFE screens. The passenger lounge up the front of the upper deck also got rejuvenated and opened up.

The cabin refurbishments took about eight weeks to complete. Qantas has 12 A380s in its fleet. That means Qantas would be down an A380 for 96 weeks, assuming no delays or hiccups. History intervened. Qantas refurbished six of the big planes before the travel downturn impacted, and all 12 of the Qantas A380s were shuttled off to Victorville to wait for better times.

Assuming normal operations, an airline has to forward plan, take the aircraft off the flight rosters, substitute in other planes, rejig schedules, and adjust available capacity. It’s not a straightforward thing to do. One of the aspects of cabin refits that often gets overlooked is the degree of forward planning that goes into the operation. Cabin refits are expensive, time-consuming, and can have roll-on impacts across the entire airline.

Qantas had embarked on a program to refit the cabins across its A380 fleet. Photo: Qantas Newsroom

The nuts and bolts of a refit

Typically, an aircraft cabin refit could include things such as installing or updating WiFi/GSM through to new cushions and soft furnishings. No two planes are alike, and each ages differently and at a different pace, so each operator will have different requirements.

Passengers on a plane often notice the superficial changes after a cabin refit. They might see fresh upholstering on the seats, new soft coverings, and carpets. Up the front, the wood veneers so loved by particular airlines might get replaced.

New galley equipment is also often included in cabin refits. Airline food is its own particular niche, but it’s a continually evolving one. Those working in the field are forever coming up with new and better ways to heat and present food onboard.

Cabin refit to improve passenger experience, economics, and efficiency

While smaller cabin refits may get done in-house, bigger jobs like the Qantas A380 cabin refurbishments get farmed out to the specialists. Qantas sent its A380s back to Airbus in Germany.

“Working with Airbus, we’ve been able to use the cabin space more efficiently and improve the economics of the aircraft while also providing a better experience in every part of the aircraft.” said the airline’s CEO, Alan Joyce.

The Qantas job was interesting because it targeted different areas of the cabin. On the upper deck, new seats got installed in both business and premium economy class. That brought those cabins into line with business and premium economy cabins on other aircraft types across the Qantas international fleet.

Downstairs on the main deck, the refit was less dramatic. In the main economy cabin, the existing seats got better cushioning, improved IFE, and a new “color palette” throughout the cabin. Up the front of the main deck, first class got a similar overhaul. But on the main deck, the seats didn’t change much.

The cabin refits gave the Qantas A380s some factory fresh sparkle. Photo; Qantas Newsroom

Airbus moves on a market opportunity

By building better and more reliable aircraft, manufacturers such as Airbus and Boeing have created a rod for their own backs. With planes flying safely for longer, airlines need to buy fewer new planes.

That, at least, is the theory. And that’s seen the manufacturers focus on cabin refits instead of just selling new planes. While an aircraft might safely fly for 20 plus years, a cabin ages far faster. That’s seen Airbus build a nice sideline in cabin refurbishments.

Airbus says cabin refits typically occur between three and fifteen years after an aircraft comes into service. Competition, economics, and the need for product differentiation drives the need for refurbishment.

Airlines keep planes in the air for longer

Xavier Bertran, Vice President of Upgrade Services at Airbus told RunwayGirl that more reliable planes mean there’s a greater focus on longevity rather than replacement.

“On upgrades, we’ve been growing fairly well, between 10% and 20% year-on-year so far, and you just have to look back on that and you can see that the driver is there, and it’s really that driver. Plus I see a lot of customers really trying too hard to compete better in the market.

“Differentiation, economics, more passenger seats, when we come out with a novelty solution like extra seats or anything, then that is taken by the market.”

Singapore Airlines has also refitted the cabins on its A380s. Photo: Getty Images

Whereas Qantas sent its A380s to an Airbus facility in Germany, Singapore Airlines brought Airbus specialists to Singapore when it refitted its A380s. The Airbus team worked with Singapore Airlines’ technicians to retrofit and install new cabin products.

The Singapore Airlines A380 refit saw upgrades across all four cabin classes. The economy class seat saw improved cushions, ergonomic backrests, and 6-way adjustable headrests. In premium economy, the cabin got a wider seat with an improved recline. There were also updates to Singapore Airlines already plush business and first class cabins.

What do you think? Are cabin refits the way of the future? Will airlines delay buying new planes, refurbish their existing ones, and keep them in the air longer? Post a comment and let us know.