In 2016, Airbus launched its own moonshot-style project. Its Silicon Valley-based innovation group, known as A³, set out to build a fully modular airplane that could be customized with plug-in modules ranging from cafes to gyms. If airlines could cater to what passengers really wanted to do in the air, the idea went, people would pay for it. Airbus called off the project, called Transpose, earlier this year–but it appears Transpose’s spirit lives on.
At a major expo for aircraft interiors in Hamburg, Germany, last week, Airbus announced that it will introduce modular sleeping areas to the cargo hold of its A330 planes by 2020. The modules, designed in partnership with the aircraft interiors company Zodiac, will sit directly on top of the cargo hold on the bottom of the plane–meaning that there’s no need to reconfigure the plane’s interiors entirely, as Transpose proposed. And crucially, Airbus would still be able to swap out the sleeping modules for cargo space when it needs it.
The news offers a glimpse at how, even if ambitious projects like Transpose never come to pass, air travel is shifting toward flexible designs that offer passengers more space–if they’re willing to pay for it.
According to an Airbus spokesperson, the new sleeping berths are not related to Transpose at all. In fact, some of Airbus’s A330s and A340s already have lower-deck sleeping areas usually designated for the cabin crew to use, which are accessible using a staircase. As a result, the infrastructure for making these sleeping areas available to passengers already exists.
The idea isn’t to add extra passengers to the plane. Instead, passengers who don’t have access to beds in business and first class–i.e., economy passengers–could pre-book these extra sleeping pods by the hour so they could catch some real shut-eye during an overnight flight. Based on the concept video the company released, users would walk down a flight of stairs to an area full of flexible, lounge-style spaces and bunk beds. The beds in the concept renderings don’t look very private, so you’d probably want your sleeping mask and earplugs.
According to Airbus, these sleeping areas will likely be available on flights where there isn’t as much freight–which would free up space to install the modules in the cargo hold–but that would be up to each individual airline. Airbus did not provide information about how much the system would cost, which would likely help determine how much airlines would charge once the sleeping areas are available. It would, in theory, give economy passengers a chance to lay down flat for a lower price tag, as renting out a bed for a few hours would likely be cheaper than buying a first or business class ticket. The new modules could offer airlines another revenue stream–or simply a way to differentiate their brand from the crowd.
Airbus’s move is part of a bigger trend in aircraft design: flexible space. In the past, Zodiac has worked with the London-based design firm New Territory to develop a concept to transform underutilized areas of an aircraft into small lounge spaces. Likewise, the now-defunct Transpose included children’s play areas, coworking spaces, and even gyms, with a business model dependent on people paying more for their flight experience to be less restricted to a seat. It looks like Airbus is still heading in that direction: Some of the concept images included with the announcement show a host of lower-deck options, including a “kids and family zone,” a lounge, a meeting room, and a medical care area.
Of course, if you want access to any of this flexible space, you’ll have to pay through the nose for it. But by introducing beds seemingly designed for economy passengers, Airbus may be looking beyond the luxury travel market and finding ways to make flying more comfortable for the rest of us.