Upgrading airline cabins

Features - Lightweighting

Advances in touch-point technology are improving aircraft interiors and the passenger experience.

May 3, 2022

Position control technology that incorporates engineered friction technology can enhance passenger perception of lightweight plastic materials in tray tables and armrests.
All photos courtesy of Southco Inc.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic forced massive travel shutdowns, and subsequent Delta and Omicron variants have slowed air travel’s return to pre-pandemic levels. As a result, airlines have been working to control costs and improve passenger experience so they can expect growth once conditions improve or return to normal.

Airlines are investing in several initiatives to control costs. In response to increasing fuel costs and other inflationary trends in supply chains and logistics, they’re concentrating on redesigning fleets for reduced overall weight to optimize fuel consumption and enhance the passenger experience. Rather than ordering new aircraft, they’re refreshing interiors so seating, overhead storage compartments, and other elements use newer, more lightweight equipment. In addition, they’re responding to several trends in passenger preferences.

As aircraft original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) modify and improve cabin interior fixtures, there are hinging and latching technologies that can address certain challenges and maximize the functionality of passenger seating design. Focusing on these small touch points can create a large impact by improving usability and heightening the perception of airline quality.

Lighter-weight seating

Updating seating is one area where airlines are lightweighting aircraft interiors, but this can present a challenge for seating designers. Using lighter metals and plastics, or slimming down the seat construction reduces weight, but there’s a risk that passenger perception of comfort and quality can negatively impact a particular carrier’s brand.

Reliable, low-power electronic locks like Southco’s R4-EM support security features and can secure galley storage areas, overhead compartments, and panels throughout an aircraft’s interior.

Changes are also being made to seating materials in response to COVID-19 safety concerns. Some airlines are having seating suppliers replace armrest cloth coverings with nonporous, lightweight plastics. While these facings are easier to clean and disinfect, it’s another area that could lead to negative impressions.

To help preserve the quality experience while reducing weight, aircraft seating designers are combining changes in seating features with smart component support. One option is through the shift away from videoscreens in the back of passenger seats. Instead, they’re replacing these heavy devices with interfaces for passengers’ own digital devices.

Seating designers are using lighter-weight plastics for tray tables. They’re also designing tray tables that can fold out in two steps, offering a smaller surface to hold digital devices and drinks, and a second, fuller surface for meals or laptops.

To make a plastic tray table feel like a more substantial, high-quality fixture, seating designers can use position control hinges incorporating engineered friction technology to provide continuous resistance through the range of motion.

To further improve passengers’ touch point experience of tray tables, designers are replacing commonly used barn door-style latches with paddle-style, similar to those used on automotive glove boxes. These latches provide a cleaner, more modern look and have a better actuation feel when opening or closing, providing an additional layer of quality.

Storage compartment latching

Lightweighting has prompted overhead compartment manufacturers to develop thinner walls, which also allows for additional storage space without compromising structural strength.

Standardized, pre-approved mechanisms such as Southco’s DZUS Quarter-Turn Fasteners can simplify supply chains and device acquisition because they can secure a wide range of panels throughout an aircraft.

However, lighter materials tend to flex more during general use and vibration during flight, and compartment doors must remain securely closed throughout all flight phases. To meet this goal, compartment manufacturers are using double-rotor rotary latches that fully envelope the striker bolt when closed. This design provides redundant latching so in the event one of the rotaries fails to latch correctly, the panel remains secure until it’s repaired.

Improved latching technology is important in other areas. Aircraft galleys contain densely packed storage units that must be well designed to support passenger needs as well as stay tightly latched and secured during takeoffs, landings, and turbulent flight conditions. One solution is using electronically actuated push-to-close latches that can be applied across the cabin to achieve remote access and security. The latch mechanism is concealed when installed within any door or panel, allowing a clean exterior surface that doesn’t disrupt aesthetic design.

Electronic latching also offers communication to a single source to provide a clear and easy-to-see indicator ensuring all compartments are properly latched. The flight attendant responsible for confirming all doors and latches are secured can look at a single status board ? wired or wirelessly connected ? and confirm the aircraft is safe for takeoff or landing.

Standardized mechanisms

Another standardized mechanism used in aircraft seating is Southco’s E6 Extended Housing Hinge, which can be used in headrests.

When upgrading or refreshing aircraft interiors, several approaches to industrial design and component acquisition keep costs under control. Choosing standardized latching and hinging mechanisms can save time and initial engineering costs. Rather than custom-designing and machining components for each new fixture or application, product development teams that select proven mechanisms already in use have a greater level of confidence at the beginning of the design process. This allows the focus to be redirected to more critical areas and is more cost-effective by reducing design iterations, which decreases the possibility for excess design, analysis, and product validation costs.

Aerospace OEMs also find value in investing more in production tooling for lower overall program costs. For instance, with plastic-molded and cast components, the cost to manufacture is significantly lower after the initial tooling investment and faster. In addition, proper mold flow analysis and tool coring can achieve significantly lighter and stronger products.

There are also operational advantages to using standardized, proven mechanisms. Throughout many aircraft, standardized quarter-turn fasteners attach fixed elements, such as cockpit gages and screens and underseat cables.

These proven fastening devices are well designed, highly vibration-resistant, and easy to open and close for maintenance; helping reduce aircraft-on-ground time. Rather than designing specialized fasteners for each unique application, using standardized fasteners makes it easier and faster for service personnel to make changes or repairs.

By integrating well-engineered, lightweight access hardware and positioning technology into seating, overhead cabinets, cockpits, and galleys, OEMs and interior equipment suppliers can improve usability, safety, and reliability with standardized mechanisms while saving engineering time and cost.

Working with leading suppliers of position control and access hardware can help aircraft interior engineering staff make intelligent, cost-effective decisions about the right devices for aircraft interior refreshes. They can provide a range of options based on specific applications, functionality, and the touch point experience that are key in any refresh project.

Southco Inc.

About the author: Bob Straka is general manager of Transportation, Southco Inc.