Held in Hamburg each year, the Crystal Cabin Awards are described as the Oscars of the aviation interiors industry. The awards are a showcase of new cabin products, bright ideas, creative designs and seating concepts that might be coming to the industry, a look into the crystal ball if you like. Presented for the 13th time this year, the 2019 event has attracted more than 100 submissions for the awards' eight different categories. These were whittled down to 24 finalists, announced in February, with the winners to be revealed at the Aircraft Interiors Expo in April.
One trend that emerges from the finalists is the ever-widening gap between economy and business class flyers. The upwelling of creative thought and innovation pauses at the curtain that divides business from economy. The front end of the aircraft is where tech companies, design studios and airlines have the space, the motivation and the money to create ever more peaceful and relaxing environments for premium-class passengers. At the back end, it's more shuffling steps rather than imaginative leaps into a better, brighter flying future.
Here are some of the highlights on the shortlist.
Cabin concepts category
One concept that will gladden the hearts of Aussie flyers if it ever gets off the ground is the Lower Deck Pax Experience Modules from Airbus. Instead of loading the floor beneath the passenger deck with cargo containers as happens now on wide-body aircraft, they're replaced by modules with comfy lounge spaces and bunk beds and quiet zones where peasant-class passengers can enjoy some of the comforts of the aristocrats at the front end. Should it come to pass you can bet airlines will not pass up the opportunity to extract maximum revenue from the concept.
Emirates is tweaking first class on board its Boeing 777s. Photo: Duncan Chard
The two other finalists in this category – Emirates Airline and French aerospace conglomerate Safran – are both looking to gild the already well-burnished lily of upper-class flyers. Emirates is looking at tweaking its first-class suites on its Boeing 777-300ERs while Safran's Essential business class seat claims to reduce weight of a business seat by 25 per cent, plus a 15 per cent increase in bed space in the fully reclined position.
Safran's Essential business class seat.
Cabin systems category
Collins Aerospace, a US-based supplier to the aerospace and defence industries, has a flash idea for the empty space in front of the emergency exits. Known as the Flex Duet, this modular system folds flat during take-off and landing. At cruise altitude, cabin crews unfold the Flex Duet from the sides of the aircraft to become a self-service snack bar, a revenue earner for the airline but also another reason other than the toilet to get up and stretch your legs during long flights. Not so great for those seated in exit row seats immediately behind the unit since this then becomes akin to the office water cooler zone with high traffic and sociable milling.
Airbus has come up with a flip-down seat that allows easier access for those passengers not in aisle seats. The X-Tend Seat has a seat pan with a hinged front section that folds down when the passenger stands up. This is also a win for the airline since it gives easier access to emergency exits, allowing the carrier to shrink the seat pitch in emergency exit rows.
The Airbus X-tend seat.
The final contender in this category is Diehl Aviation's FlexPSU, a flexible Passenger Service Unit system. The PSU is essentially all the bits that sit above your seat – reading lights, air conditioning outlets, illuminated signs and drop-down oxygen masks. These are traditionally fixed, which makes it difficult to change the cabin configuration but the FlexPSU uses an overhead rail system that allows the PSU to be relocated and seating reconfigured. That's an asset if an airline wanted to redeploy a particular aircraft to its low-cost sibling for example, which would typically involve squishing in more seats.
Greener cabin, health, safety and environment category
Air New Zealand won heaps of affection for its innovative SkyCouch, a row of three economy class seats that can be made into a bed. Now comes a family-friendly iteration, with belts and guard adapted so that a few lucky ankle biters and even babies can sack out in comfort and safety.
Air New Zealand's SkyCouch is now more family friendly.
Diehl Aviation came up with the UV-LED Water Disinfection Unit. This is a UV LED antibacterial water purification system that can be retrofitted to the tap in the toilet, making the water safe for drinking. Diehl claims the system kills at least 99.99 per cent of germs, and the effectiveness of broad-spectrum ultraviolet light, far-UVC, is widely accepted. Far-UVC systems are used to decontaminate surgical equipment, but thanks all the same, I'll stick with the stuff that comes off the drinks trolley.
Passenger comfort hardware category
Working on the principle that having different body points in contact with the seat leads to a more comfortable passenger experience on long-haul flights, French global design studio Style & Design developed the Moments concept, which offers a range of sofa-like positions for sitting, lying and turning, without requiring extra cabin space. Sadly, available only to the pampered pussycats in business class, who need it least.
Recaro's seat design offers flexible head and neck support.
Better news from Recaro, which manufactures aircraft seats as well as sexy seats for your car. A regular contender at the Crystal Cabin Awards , Recaro comes to the rescue of the plebs in economy with a trio of innovative seating ideas that involve flexible head and neck support, leg support and improved cushioning for the lower back for a more comfy sleeping position with reduced pressure points.
In-flight entertainment and connectivity
The enclosed first-class suites in Emirates' B777-300ER are configured 1-1-1, which means the middle suite occupant has no window, as if you didn't know. This, apparently, can lead to disorientation and even feelings of motion sickness since there is no correlation between body movements and what the eye sees. Collins Aerospace has come up with a virtual window for these interior suites, a video display that mimics the real-life view out the window, except that the video visual experience is even better, sharper, clearer and more satisfying in every way than what you would see if you were actually looking out the window, according to Collins.
Enjoy a virtual window from your (middle) first class seat.
Canada's Global Eagle Entertainment has completed testing on a low-altitude, low-cost satellite network that promises to usher in a new era in high-speed connectivity for aircraft inflight and ships at sea. If the GEE system lives up to promises, flyers should be able to access video chats and streaming even in parts of the globe that have suffered from connectivity issues such as the polar regions.
Crystal cabin awards finalists
1. Cabin concepts
Lower Deck Pax Experience Modules – Airbus S.A.S. (co-operation partner Safran)
Emirates First Class Fully Enclosed Suites – Emirates (co-operation partners The Boeing Company, Collins Aerospace, Jacques Pierrejean Design Studio, Mercedes Benz, Panasonic, Teague)
Essential – Safran
2. Cabin systems
X-Tend Seat – the new Over Wing Exit Seat – Airbus Operations GmbH
M-Flex Duet – Collins Aerospace
Flexible Passenger Service Unit System – Diehl Aerospace GmbH
3. Greener cabin, health, safety and environment
Air New Zealand SkyCouch infant and child improvements – Air New Zealand
UV LED Water Disinfection Unit – Diehl Aviation Gilching GmbH
nanoe – Panasonic Avionics
Virtual Windows – Collins Aerospace
Pioneering LEO Satellite Broadband – Global Eagle (co-operation partner Telesat, Gilat, Qest)
Entertainment for all – United Airlines (co-operation partner Panasonic Avionics)
5. Material and components
uLED Reading Light – Collins Aerospace
Flexible door – Safran
KYDEX Lumina – SEKISUI Polymer Innovations, LLC
6. Passenger comfort hardware
Active Noise Control and Premium Seat Lighting – Panasonic Avionics
Sleeping comfort above the clouds – RECARO Aircraft Seating
Moments by STYLE&DESIGN – Style&Design
Adient 1FA – Hongik University (co-operation partner ADIENT)
Stratus – TU Delft (co-operation partner Safran)
SkyDining – University of Cincinnati (co-operation partners The Boeing Company and Live Well Collaborative)
8. Visionary concepts
ULTRAFLEX by AIM ALTITUDE – AIM ALTITUDE
Boeing Smart Cabin – The Boeing Company
Peacock Suites – Paperclip Design Limited