Almost unnoticed, a revolution is taking place in the aerospace industry. Whereas the focus of the industry was once upon improving the performance and efficiency of airframes, engines and other primary systems; manufacturers and operators are now placing a growing emphasis on cabins.

As a result of the increasingly competitive nature of the aviation industry (and the corporate sector in particular), operators are striving to win and keep customers by offering the most attractive in-flight experience.

But this doesn’t just mean sprucing up cabin interiors with new seating, lie-flat seats, bathrooms, bars and gyms. Operators are also spending heavily on upgrading cabin-management systems.

A decade ago, these systems largely provided entertainment and control of the cabin environment, but now they can also provide communications; manage lighting, waste and water systems; and enable centralised maintenance. They can offer passengers high-speed satellite data communications – a critical offering in the business-jet market, where customers are keen to remain as productive as possible and in contact with head office and the news media at all times.

MOBILE COMMUNICATIONS

Executive aircraft passengers in particular have high expectations in terms of access to information and entertainment. Indeed, Rockwell Collins, one of the leaders in cabin-management systems, recognises that ‘the business-jet cabin must serve as a mobile communications and office command post’. The company is seeking to introduce ‘fully integrated, intuitive systems that allow the passenger to work, watch, play and communicate like never before’.

In September 2007, for example, Rockwell Collins launched Venue, the first high-definition video-distribution system available for aircraft, allowing passengers to play Xbox 360 games and Blu-ray DVDs on high-definition displays.

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Included will be docking stations for iPods and iPhones, making it possible for passengers to plug in these devices and access their information through the cabin’s video and audio systems. The control devices for Venue will feature programmable soft buttons and an icon-based graphical user interface.

“Operators are spending heavily on upgrading cabin-management systems.”

Meanwhile, Lufthansa Technik, which supplies cabin systems as well as being the global market leader in the maintenance, repair and overhaul of commercial aircraft, their engines and components, is now talking to private operators about installing its NICE Ethernet-based cabin network, a standard offering in the Bombardier Challenger 300 mid-size business jets, the Boeing 787 and 747-8, and the Airbus A380.

NICE supports a wide range of entertainment options, including iPod docking and flat-panel-speaker surround sound, as well as cabin management, productivity and passenger communications. NICE operates in conjunction with a mobile access router for data and voice communications via satellite or ground-based stations.

INCREASING FOCUS ON CABIN MANAGEMENT

Where the executive jets lead, the traditional airlines tend to follow, and Lufthansa is now offering its NICE system to the general aviation market.

Airbus certainly underlined the increasing importance that airlines place on cabin-management systems in 2005, when it created an integrated centre of excellence, based at its Hamburg Finkenwerder plant, to give the company more effective control of cabin-management systems, as it sought to grab the initiative in cabin design and innovation. Finkenwerder had long been established as Airbus’s cabin-installation centre.

The centre of excellence gathered together 16 former organisations, including the then recently acquired German companies Aircabin and KID-Systeme. The latter company, based in Buxtehude, specialises in cabin-management systems.

Apart from offering customers a wide range of previously unattainable in-flight services, modern cabin-management systems, such as Lufthansa Technik’s NICE, also have important advantages for operators, weighing much less than the previous generation of systems and requiring less maintenance, with obvious cost savings.

“Where the executive jets lead, the traditional airlines tend to follow.”

For example, in May 2007, when Grob Aerospace selected Honeywell to supply the cabin-management and entertainment system for the SPn, the industry’s first all-composite light business jet, it said that it chose Honeywell’s C Management System (CMS) because ‘it offered important advantages in terms of being lightweight and space efficient as well as being customer friendly, and easy to use and maintain’.

The C Series cabin system provides full control of all cabin, galley and lavatory functions, as well as the latest entertainment features. The system offers SPn customers the option of the highest-quality DVD/CD players, individual switch panels, an XM satellite radio system, MP3 connection and high-resolution LCD displays.

Honeywell also stresses the low maintenance requirements of its C Series cabin-management system, which it says has built-in test capabilities, allowing the cabin equipment to monitor its own status and even repair faults while recording and reporting important errors to the crew.

WEIGHT IS THE KEY

But it is weight that is increasingly the critical factor for airlines and private operators. Most try to entice high-margin first- and business-class passengers with add-ons such as internet workstations, seats that convert into beds, bars and gyms.

However, loading up the cabins with luxurious extras adds weight and companies are desperate to find offsetting weight savings in other areas (such as cabin-management systems).

As the plane’s weight rises, fuel consumption increases – an especially urgent concern at a time of soaring fuel prices – and so do airport landing fees that are based on the plane’s empty weight. And the weight savings offered by the new generation of cabin-management systems can be considerable. They can weigh 30% less and take up 20% less space than previous systems.

“The weight savings offered by the new generation of cabin-management systems can be considerable.”

When the Boeing 777 was launched in 1993, for example, its core cabin-management system controlled interphones, lights and temperature controls. In-flight entertainment systems included seatback- or arm-housed video screens and audio stations, with more than 2,000 individual units together weighing more than 6,000lb.Compare that with the Boeing 787 due to come into service in late 2008.

Boeing claims that the 787 will be at least 20% more fuel-efficient than current competing aircraft.

One-third of the efficiency gain will come from the engines, another third from aerodynamic improvements and the increased use of lighter-weight composite materials, and the final third from advanced systems, including cabin management.

For example, Boeing has specified wireless in-flight entertainment systems, reducing wiring costs and aircraft weight by eliminating much of the equipment that was previously housed under passenger seats.

Passengers travelling on normal services could very soon see the benefits the latest in-cabin management systems can bring to flight – from in-flight comfort to in-flight entertainment, thanks to the lure these systems have for flight operators balancing environmental pressures with cost constraints.