Airbus to offer lower-deck passenger sleeper berths amidst cargo holds

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At the Aircraft Interiors Expo held in Hamburg, Germany, Airbus and Zodiac Aerospace jointly announced a partnership to develop lower-deck modules in the former’s range of passenger flights. The standalone modules are primarily developed to add more utility to the aircraft, and to differentiate its services from its major market competitors.

The modules can be used interchangeably with regular cargo containers, and thus, the cargo floor and the cargo loading system would not be affected during their operations as the passenger module can be placed right over it.

That said, the rhetoric of passenger modules is not new to the scene - the idea has been floating around since Airbus unveiled its A380 fleet in 2000, a double-decker “super jumbo” flight which was touted to be the cruise ship of the skies. Airbus envisioned the A380 to mirror the comfort of a five-star hotel, complete with bedroom cabins, gyms, conference rooms, and even a shopping area.

But all that went moot as the idea, for the most part, found very few takers. Commercial airline companies found such facilities to be a considerably expensive to maintain, and since such services came with an exorbitant price tag, it was improbable that there would ever be enough passengers on those seats to help their bottom line.

But the idea of interchangeable modular compartments could hold water. Airbus explains that the modules can include six-bed sleeping berths, lounges, or living rooms - conducive to families traveling together on long intercontinental flights.

“This approach to commercial air travel is a step change towards passenger comfort. We have already received very positive feedback from several airlines on our first mock-ups,” said Geoff Pinner, Head of Airbus Cabin & Cargo Programme. “We are pleased to partner with Zodiac Aerospace on this project which will introduce a new passenger experience and add value for airlines.”

The initial deployment is expected to happen in 2020, starting out with the A330 fleet. Airbus could also leverage the modules to help gain ground on its flagship A380, which since its rousing reception in 2007, has not created the expected stir in the market. To be fair to Airbus, the financial crisis of 2008 did play spoilsport. Also, the A380 was an airliner which was exclusively suited for long intercontinental flight transits - like between Perth and London or Singapore and New York. Since the A380 could be replaced by smaller but equally capable flights like the Airbus A350, the possibilities of A380 were stunted right from the beginning.

At the moment, Emirates is the single largest patron of the A380 fleets, with it owning nearly half of all the manufactured A380s. But all is not well with the sales targets that Airbus had at the time of its launch. The company had intended to sell 1,200 A380s within two decades, but half away to the deadline, all it has managed are 222 aircrafts till date.

The situation has become so dire, that Airbus actually has plans of shelving the A380 program. Earlier this year, the chief salesman of Airbus, John Leahy has stated that if the company could not come to terms with an Emirates deal, they would be forced to bring the curtain down on the A380 program. As Airbus is desperate for a reversal in the A380 fortunes, its introduction of passenger modules could potentially serve as the lynchpin to the model's success story.

Addressing reporters about the safety concerns arising from the prospect of passenger modules, Airbus spokesman Martin Fendt has insisted that the modules would not be occupied during takeoff or landing. He has also mentioned that Airbus plans to promote this to the economy class market, as the modules would be made available at a lower price compared to a premium class flatbed seat. Hopefully, the move towards such modules could usher a new age in passenger aircraft experience, which for some reason, has largely remained constant over decades.

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