Opportunities for Innovation in the Airline Industry

13th May 2015

There is a sense of frustration brewing in the aircraft industry. The combined effect of strict certification processes, increasing passenger numbers, greater industry competition and a hard push towards standardisation is paralysing innovation within the industry.

Within the private business jet industry there is a tension between selling a creative dream and the reality of what can be delivered within the strictures of modern aviation certification. The ability to sell a viable creative vision is fundamentally important for the private jet industry, where an individual expects to buy his or her dream, rather than just a practical means of transport. The potential to disappoint is vast – but derogation allows room for a greater level of innovation. However in an increasingly litigious and risk averse society, the regulations on commercial aircraft are only becoming more stringent. We noted a sense of resigned pessimism among delegates, frustrated by the lack of potential development in the future.

As a blink test, aircraft interiors have not evolved since the 1960s, whilst the steps taken in the automotive industry during the same period have been massive. The problem is that passenger expectations are continuing to develop and their expectations have been shaped by their experiences in other areas of their life. When a passenger gets into an airplane, their last point of reference is their car – an air conditioned, keyless, GPS enabled, digitally connected, ergonomic oasis…by comparison even the most advanced aircraft will seem like a step back in time.

Development times for new aircrafts play a huge part in this lag. The current Airbus A380 would have been conceived 10 years ago or more – and we‘ve all seen how far technology has come since then. The current industry direction for increasing aircraft production speed is through large scale manufacturing standardization. This sort of standardisation would allow more planes to be delivered more quickly and reduce development times and costs, but what about differentiation?

As Sven Achilles, of B/E Aero Space eloquently pointed out; “If your car is running low on petrol, you don’t care what brand of gas station you pull into”. In general, people don’t care what brand of airline they fly with; they just go with the cheapest option. Flights have become a commodity. This is most obvious when you compare the difference between the various airlines’ economy offerings. You get a seat, you get a fold out table and you get a meal. There is very little to tell them apart.

If the industry is to accept the need for standardisation, differentiation cannot be delivered solely through the aircraft interior – the ‘product’ itself. In this scenario differentiation must be achieved through service innovation and a tailored and consistent brand message.

Successful brands will offer services beyond just the flight itself – engaging the consumer from the moment they book a ticket right through to long after the plane has landed. The key to innovation in this instance is the ability to understand the customer and then develop effective and relevant solutions to make their overall brand experience a memorable and positive one.

However there is a sense that airlines don’t want to differentiate on service alone, they also want to offer a unique product. In this case, for airlines to truly innovate, they need to take a much longer term approach to design to deliver real development within the industry.

At Seymourpowell we believe designers perform an important role. We can provide a vision for the future that companies can begin to work towards. Having a long-term objective means that the process can move from a reactive one to a proactive one. It means we can start to understand the smaller steps needed to reach that goal and begin to prepare for the future.

As Jeremy White, Seymourpowell’s Head of Transport has said, “If you don’t push the boundaries then you will always end up doing the same thing. If you don’t take risks, then there is a good chance you’ll be scrambling to keep up with the competitors who have.” Sometimes you have to float an idea… say, ‘why not?’ instead of, ‘why?’… ‘what if?’ instead of, ‘how?’.

Seymourpowell co-founder and Design Director, Richard Seymour has a name for this – he calls it, “Optimistic Futurism” and points out, “Designers cannot be, by definition, pessimists. It just doesn’t go with the job. We’re supposed to be defining the future, aren’t we? If we can’t see the world as a better place to live in, then what chance does anyone else have?”