From the start of the design process the A350 XWB had to be a revolutionary aircraft. Discussions with operators of existing wide-bodies had revealed that many were only interested in something completely new. The step change was an opportunity to design a cabin that was absolutely fresh.
Airbus’ executive committee (EC) decided to seize the opportunity by proposing what became known as the ‘chrysalis cabin.’ Designers usually start work by looking at existing cabins and looking for evolutionary improvements that would add incremental benefits for passengers and airlines. The inspiration for the chrysalis cabin was the potential of new technologies to allow a break with the past, so discussions started with a blank sheet of paper.
“We saw no point in simply tweaking existing cabin designs when the aircraft itself was going to be completely new,” explains Kiran Rao, head of strategy. “The chance to offer customers a substantially better cabin as well as excellent performance, range and efficiency was too good to miss. After all, the quality of the cabin is what matters most of all to passengers.”
The EC felt that the cabin was important enough for it to be the key factor in some decisions about the aircraft design. “We’d seen the first super first class suites on the A380, the evolution of business class towards lie-flat seats with no middle seat and the need for enough space to allow comfort in economy on long haul flights,” says Kiran. “These considerations determined the width of the cabin and the aircraft.”
Older wide-bodies tapered at the front and back but this placed limitations on seat configuration and made an aircraft feel narrow to passengers as they looked along the cabin. Curved walls reduced shoulder room in window seats and for many passengers the view from the windows was quite limited. The chrysalis cabin was designed with no tapering at all between the doors, straighter walls and panoramic windows that were 50% bigger those on the A330, setting a new industry standard. Panoramic windows allow more passengers to see more of the world outside. “We could have gone for higher windows like our competitors,” remembers Kiran, “but they only let you see more sky.”
Dropping the floors allowed straighter walls, a change that also increased the feeling of spaciousness, made room for bigger overhead storage bins and meant that crew rest areas could be installed above the passenger deck. “The more seats on the passenger deck and the more cargo in the hold, the better,” explains Kiran. “Putting the crew’s bunks above everything else increased the available revenue space even further.”
Other proposals included LED lighting, 3D and ultra-HD ready in-flight entertainment, a flat floor and full connectivity. “We knew that the chrysalis cabin was a real challenge but every feature was designed with passengers at heart and airlines in mind so we didn’t want to compromise,” concludes Kiran. “I’m deeply impressed that eight years on our people have delivered almost everything we asked for.”
“When we saw the chrysalis cabin requirements that arrived from the executive committee we were slightly stunned,” remembers Jochen Mueller, cabin supply module head of engineering. “We didn’t think it was actually possible and neither did some of our suppliers but being engineers, we soon started thinking in terms of solutions.”
The scale of the challenge led to a new way of working. Jochen believes that the key to the team’s successful delivery was their adoption of the requirement-based system, introduced first time with the A350 XWB.
In the past cabin engineers had worked out exactly what they wanted and then asked suppliers to produce it. For the A350 XWB the process was changed. “Our suppliers became RSPs (risk sharing partners) and we trusted them much more, we let them work out the finer details as long as what they produced met our requirements,” he says.
A good example of this approach arose with the aircraft’s stunning new LED lighting system. It had to be zonal, programmable and provide the full range of colours but explaining how bright it should be was a problem. “We could have done a lot of research before giving exact specifications but instead we said we wanted the rest rooms to be bright enough for passengers to put their make-up on and then left it to the lighting experts to achieve that,” explains Jochen.
Of course, careful, regular, systematic checks were absolutely essential to monitor progress but showing faith in the ability of RSPs to deliver made fast work on the groundbreaking cabin possible. “We might have been a little bit in awe of the requirements at first but when I look at the cabin now I can cross almost all of them off the list,” says Jochen.
Even a quick glance at the new cabin’s credentials shows that Jochen’s assessment is correct. Air pressure and humidity levels are better while state of the art in-flight entertainment (IFE) is delivered through larger, higher quality screens. Mood lighting can help passengers to avoid jet lag, changes to suit each phase of the flight and allows airlines to brand the interior by using colours against the white aircraft walls.
Despite the state-of-the-art IFE, the floor is flat and IFE boxes have been shrunk to have no impact on passengers’ feet. Overhead bins are larger, shoulder room is better and the lack of tapering really does make the cabin feel more spacious. And the panoramic windows offer a noticeably better view. Even the hot beverage machines and ovens have their servicing needs monitored by a centralised computer system.
“Being presented with non-negotiable requirements is every engineer’s nightmare but our job was to overcome any problems,” says Jochen. “It took a few years but with the help of our RSPs I think we did it.”