Transposing Cruise Life to the Air
Can a plane be a hotel, gym, restaurant, and more? Jason Chua and his team at Transpose are saying yes to that question. They are making air travel fun, relaxing, and delicious. For the past few years, Jason and his team of design-minded engineers have been toying with the idea of developing a modular cabin experience, where you can swap out the parts of a plane like Legos, and provide a cruise-like experience in the air. After trekking to a seemingly ordinary industrial park in San Jose CA, we got to sit inside the live mockup of an Airbus A330 and see what their idea of a voyage through the sky might be like.
By George Ko
Photos by George Ko. Video edited by Sharon Choi.
Jason Chua: I’m the Project Executive for Transpose. It’s a project out of the group called A^3, which is Airbus’s Silicon Valley outpost that works on disruptive projects. My background is in product design and mechanical engineering. Before Airbus, I spent a couple of years at Google working in consumer experience design and retail design. I've also spent time lecturing at the Stanford Design School and worked at a biometric health monitoring company.
GR: What are the goals of the Transpose project?
JC: I came to A^3 with a mission to rethink the passenger experience. If you look at an aircraft today and look at photos from the 1920s, when commercial passenger air travel began, it's about the same – a bunch of seats in rows. Of course, the seats now are a lot safer and more technologically advanced, but the similarities were striking, given how much everything else in the world has changed. Part of my mission was to figure out why that’s the case.
I interviewed a bunch of people that manufacture planes, airline executives, and passengers, but also people in the trains and cruise ship industries. We even went to a NASCAR race. What we discovered is that there are a lot of really cool concepts and ways you can use tight spaces.
But the challenge is that there’s a lot of risk and cost involved in installing an aircraft cabin. If you take the electrical systems in an aircraft, there’s about 100 miles of wiring in a wide body. You can imagine that's a fairly complex system. Anytime you move anything inside the cabin, even if it’s moving a lavatory forward by a couple of feet, it creates a lot of cascading effects in terms of complexity, cost, and time.
The project ended up being about making the customization process simpler, and lowering the business risk involved. By doing that, we can allow for some of the ideas that people everywhere have come up with to enter the cabin more rapidly. Basically, we’re designing the platform.
GR: How did you get into design? Where were your first inklings of design?
JC: Many people think designers are into Legos. I was more of a K’nex guy. But it had a lot to do with my family: my grandfather was an artist, and my mom liked architecture, so I grew up with this appreciation for aesthetics and looking at how things are designed.
I remember taking trips to McDonald’s with my dad and looking at little ketchup cups. My dad, an engineer, would ask me how I thought it was made and he’d open it up and tell me about the machine that makes ketchup cups. We would unfold fries packages and see how it was tessellated. So I started thinking about how things are made.
When I went to college I knew I wanted to do something sort of build-y and design-y. I discovered this thing called Product Design. Basically, it was engineering fundamentals. You took a bunch of physics and intro engineering courses. You also needed to understand how to talk to people, how to prototype and how to construct a business case for the things that you built.
GR: Where did you grow up? What’s your heritage?
JC: I grew up in the Chicago area. All four of my grandparents grew up in China and then emigrated to the Philippines, which is where my parents were born and raised. Then they came to the U.S., where I was born and raised. We've hopped across multiple countries with each generation.
GR: What were your key takeaways from the design school?
JC: One takeaway was that I don’t have all the skills or answers in my head. But as long as I can go out and talk to people who are smarter or better than me at different things, I can come up with a better plan. Being okay with being the dumbest person in the room is generally the case with me, especially in an industry like aviation. There's a level of discomfort that comes with asking questions in order to learn, to help form a perspective on things.
GR: Aside from being a designer, you’re also a philanthropist and educator. What was the SparkTruck project you worked on?
JC: I was pursuing my Masters program in mechanical engineering and doing mechatronic robots. I was good at being nice to the hardcore engineers and getting them snacks, which is basically still my function today. They became my friends, and one year later we wanted to do something that had a positive impact on society.
We thought that persisting through things and prototyping quickly were important, especially in an educational culture that’s trending towards standardized testing. Then we thought it would be cool to have a truck and put a classroom in it, so we mashed the two ideas together, and had a hands-on education in prototyping out of a truck.
We got the truck after calling a few local truck rental companies and convinced them to lend one to us for the rest of the school year. We started scourging for parts and materials, and by the end of summer these workshops were going well. We got some press and people from all over the country reached out about bringing the truck to them. After graduation, instead of going for work, we raised money on Kickstarter, got corporate sponsorships, and visited schools all over the U.S.
GR: What is the purpose of this life-size mockup of a plane we're sitting in?
JC: In order to understand what such a design could look like, how people would interact with it, and how we could engineer it, we had to build a full-scale mockup. That’s what we’re sitting in now. What we put inside the mockup are things we think are not served well by current aircraft architectures. If you have a family of five and you’re trying to talk to each other, you end up yelling over two other people or you’re straining your neck. It’s really uncomfortable. So we decided to take a page out of train design and create family areas where you have space on the ground for kids to play with toys. You can sit across from one another and have a conversation.
GR: What plane is the mockup based on?
JC: We based this on a full size A-330/100, which is Airbus’s wide body long-haul aircraft. We built it based off the CAD that exists, and it’s made out of composite materials. We actually reused a lot of passenger and loading doors from an old aircraft.
GR: What are the routes a normal A-330 takes? How many seats are on the plane?
JC: Generally Transatlantic or Transpacific flights. It has somewhere between 250 and 300 people, depending if the plane has two, three, or four classes. In this mockup, the seating density is similar to that of a premium economy cabin. We can fit about 200 passengers. But of course, each experience type is customized, so the seating will vary.
At the front of the aircraft, we have a co-working area that was inspired by hotel lobbies. Its got a long narrow table where people can sit and work on their laptops. If you’re traveling for business you don’t necessarily want to be sleeping the whole time. You can get some work done.
The next one down is an executive lounge, blurring the line between work and play. It’s like a cocktail lounge but there are some tables and outlets to get work done.
Next is an aircraft-quality restaurant. We know one of the things people want onboard is to have a nice meal. But of course, when you have a meal on the plane right now, it’s not the best environment. Since everything is done at your seat, it has to be your bed, a dining table, an office, a movie theater. You have a lot of compromises and the experience is an irritable design. We wanted to create a space that was really dedicated to your culinary enjoyment.
GR: How would buying a seat work on this type of plane? Would there be a different price for a business seat versus a family cabin seat?
JC: We have some theories about this. At the end of the day, it’s up to the airlines to decide the business and pricing model. But if you think about the way people travel today, there’s basically only two things people search for when buying a ticket: where you're going, and how much it's going to cost. But we know people travel for lots of different reasons and want to accomplish different things while they’re in the air.
We eventually created a prototype booking tool to reflect this need. We ask people if they want to spend time with their family on the plane, get a workout in, relax, sleep, or have a nice meal. The idea is that people can choose experiences they want to have. This creates new sub-products that airlines can understand at a more granular level and know how to price them.
GR: How do you deal with carry-on luggage?
JC: In this mockup we don’t have any overhead storage bins mostly because we all know what they look like. The nice thing about this design is if you want overhead storage bins, you can put them in. But we’re also exploring other ways for people to have luggage with them: under the seats or maybe just people checking bags more often.
GR: Why do you think it’s taken so long to design a truly comfortable flight experience?
JC: There are a lot of cool ideas and smart people working on interiors. But they haven’t been able to implement any of those ideas because of the risk.
GR: In other words, it’s not that people were struggling with designing good experiences, it was more designing a way to alleviate the cost struggles designers were dealing with.
JC: Yeah, I think what we’re trying to do here is to unleash the latent creativity that people have by changing the economic model.
Cabins are designed inflexibly. Once you put in an interior, it’s there for 10 years or so. That’s why the industry has gone to a one-size-fits-all model. You could technically put a bunch of beds on a plane or a restaurant. But the problem is that planes fly both day and night. You would have to constantly swap things out, and this costs time and money. That’s why we designed a modular system.
GR: How easy is it to swap things out in the Transpose plane?
JC: An aircraft cabin is a half semi-circle. Think a zucchini sliced lengthwise. If you chop it up into a bunch of crescent shapes, those little pieces are modules. These modules can be loaded onto an aircraft through the module loading door, which is basically a repurposed cargo door. It just slides and latches into place.
GR: So they're like Lego parts? How long does it take to swap out a module?
JC: Yes. We can change out the modules in 15 minutes. Today, if you want to replace the cabin of a wide body aircraft, it takes 30 days. That’s a huge opportunity cost. This way, you could change cabins more often and offer more experiences.
GR: What do airline executives think, as the ones who will finance the final product?
JC: I’ll start with the airline executives. Those that focus on passenger experience are really excited about the opportunities Transpose can deliver. They see this as a great enabler in trying out new possibilities for their fleets. On the finance side, people are a bit more nervous since this is a completely new business model, which means pricing for a coach ticket versus a family area ticket is a difficult question.
On another hand, we did solve a really big pain point for airlines. If you think about business travel, Monday is a lot heavier than Saturday. As of right now, the business class cabin stays the same. However, with this system you can swap out some modules to accommodate more premium cabin guests. We analyzed a few million lines of historical flight, fare, and fleet data with a former airline CFO and discovered we can increase five to seven percent of revenue for airlines. When you’re in an industry where fractions of a percentage are a big deal, this addition is gigantic.
GR: I heard you did mock flights with a whole crew, staff, and passengers. How did they react to the new design?
JC: A couple of months ago, we had a simulated flight and had six cabin crew from three different airlines come and help us staff the experience. Currently on the plane, you sit in your seat almost 100 percent of the time. In a cabin with a bunch of experiences, there’s a lot more movement with passengers. One of the things we investigated was the dynamic between the cabin crew and passengers. We noticed people on the flight were more happy than those on a normal flight.
Another interesting thing was how food service is done on a plane. Today, you normally serve food from a cart that someone rolls down the aisle. You have to make sure you have enough shelf and trolley space to serve 250 people at once. However, with the restaurant module, it’s more like serving 25 people 10 times, because that’s how many people that can fit inside a restaurant at one time. So you need to have different ways of serving that have never been done before.
GR: How realistic do you think this design will be on a commercial airliner?
JC: From a technical and certification perspective, we believe we can get this flying in the next three years. I think one of the biggest challenges right now is convincing people that this is not crazy, that it’s actually economically attractive and your passengers will be more happy.
GR: Is there any airline that's been incredibly enthusiastic about it?
JC: I can't really comment on that at this point.
GR: Do you have a favorite plane?
JC: The Airbus A-380. When I flew on it for the first time, I was blown away by how big it was. It’s double the size of an A-330. It was also really quiet. Most planes have the sort of loud droning noise from aircraft engines, so I usually wear earplugs, but not on the A-380.
GR: Is there an airline right now that crushes it, design-wise?
JC: I do like Lufthansa; it’s super consistent. I’m biased because I fly to Germany a lot. They also have one of the nicest airport lounges I’ve ever been in. I was able to upgrade myself with points on Lufthansa, and fly first class once from Frankfurt. It’s so nice and they even give you this limited edition rubber duck, which apparently people who fly first class all the time collect. I can totally understand why if you have the money you would fly that way.
GR: What’s next for you guys?
JC: We’re at the stage in this project where we’re beginning to work more heavily with airline partners to get this thing flying. We’re also working with brands that aren’t traditionally associated with aircraft cabin design.In some ways, we’re going through this exploration similar to the self-driving car space. Since you no longer need to be behind a steering wheel, you can have different experiences. We think the aircraft cabin can be that space as well.
Transpose is based in San Jose, CA.
You can follow there progress here.
They're also pretty active on twitter.