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Box vs tube

The links between hotels and aircraft have been evident for quite some time. It was Pan American World Airways, under Juan Trippe, who set up Intercontinental Hotels to create a five-star hotel experience for its crews and passengers to stay in. That was in an age when flying was for the elite and was still highly inspirational and glamorous in its own right, and probably influenced both the hotel and automotive industries. Latterly the influence from the ‘tube’ to the ‘box’ has probably been reversed.

Above and right: Notice any similarity between the seating at the Room Mate Carlos II in Buenos Aires and the yin-yang seating of BA's Club World?

In the early 1990s Ian Schrager pioneered a new take on boutique hotels whose contemporary designs were at the heart of their differentiation. By enlisting the likes of Philippe Starck to design the interiors of hotels such as the Paramount and Hudson in New York and St Martins Lane in London, and populating the interiors with designs from the likes of Marc Newson, people started to take note that investing in inspirational designers created a buzz around the hotel, and enviable notoriety.

At a similar time the more innovative airlines could see how the use of good design in hotels could be mapped into an aircraft cabin. The way Starck used LED lighting in St Martins Lane, in an almost Turrell-like manner, probably sparked the imagination of a few aircraft interior designers – including myself – and now variable coloured LED technology is commonplace onboard aircraft.

Having now worked extensively in both the airline and hotel sectors, I have experienced both the restrictions and opportunities in each industry. By far the more restrictive is the aircraft world, with legislation and certification criteria that close down the majority of design concepts which are not formed on a solid foundation and understanding of the hard realities. Invariably, the hotel sector has far more opportunity and scope for experimentation and to push new design movements, technologies and boundaries influenced both by art and by architects at the forefront of inspirational ideas. There is, however, a world of difference between an über-chic boutique hotel and a franchised international chain such as Holiday Inn: the latter actually having far more in common with the airline industry than the former.

Hotel designers have the freedom to use new or exotic materials and finishes that have complete disregard to weight restrictions and in some cases cost constraints. They don’t have to go to the extremes of withstanding the hostile environment of an aircraft interior, although they do have a few durability considerations of their own. This means that trying to replicate the same hotel design ambience onboard an aircraft isn’t without pitfalls or a hefty maintenance programme with serious cost implications.

Some airlines have been very literal with the hotel influence and have employed hotel designers to add their touches to the cabin interiors. British Airways recruited both Terence Conran and Kelly Hoppen in some of their cabin interior executions. Recently design houses such as Priestmangoode and Softroom, who were introduced to the airline industry by Virgin Atlantic, have gone on to great success by moving into the hotel sector, being recruited by Etap and Simon Woodroffe’s Yotel chain (above), respectively, to use their expertise in maximising the potential of minimal spaces to create contemporary chic environments.

Many of the things that make a hotel experience unique to its brand are the sensorial components. These are elements that affect all the senses, whether you are conscious of them or not. A luxury hotel lobby with low-level mood lighting, overlaid with light (on brand) background music and sound-deadening deep luxury carpet you sink into whilst getting a hint of the aroma of freshly cut flowers on the stunningly designed check-in desk is difficult to replicate onboard an aircraft.

Being greeted in the stark fluorescent galley lighting with the waft of the previous hundreds of passengers having just disembarked combined with the clatter and smell of the bashed-up catering carts being loaded in the galley with the hum of the APU in the background and the feel of the hard NTF in the entranceway is your first experience. It is poles apart from creating a magical initial first impression. That’s why on the layouts for Virgin’s aircraft I was always keen to have the bar area right by the boarding door to stand a fighting chance of creating a special initial boarding moment.

There is still much more opportunity for airlines and aircraft manufacturers to explore how our senses inform and measure the experience we have and what that says about the brand. They can also take influence and inspiration from the hotel sector in the way some luxury brands almost create theatrical stage sets, with their staff taking on roles that are effortlessly performed.

In reality, currently, there are huge differences in what can be achieved on the ground vs in the air, and if it is just superficial replication that an airline aspires to, it will fall short of achieving its ambitions. The best designs may be influenced by external ideas, new textiles, material finishes and lighting effects, but it’s important to stay true to celebrating the space, restrictions and materials available and create a unique execution that is fit for purpose whilst encapsulating the airline’s brand aspirations.

I predict what will now happen is a movement that expands further than just the influence at a design level. The hotel influence is now migrating from the tangible hard components such as interior and product design and moving into the ephemeral and sensorial elements of service and experience design. Whilst this is an exciting path to take, it is also a brave move to try and replicate a hotel experience. Some hotels have the luxury of massive kitchens, in-house chefs and high volumes of staff. With cramped galleys and a restricted number of cabin crew for the ratio of passengers it’s a challenge to see just how far the genuine hotel experience can be replicated onboard an aircraft. Again I would suggest that creating a unique experience designed within the aircraft constraints would result in a better and more comfortable experience for both guest and cabin crew.

In summary, whilst it’s good to keep an eye on the design developments of the ‘box’ it’s better to be true to the ‘tube’. There is still so much more potential in the aircraft interiors world that has yet to be tapped into, and with ever-developing technologies I believe a truly unique experience can be delivered without having to measure it against hotel design. For a start, you get a better view than any hotel can boast….

Joe Ferry was head of design at Virgin Atlantic for almost a decade and subsequently became senior vice president of global design and guest experience for the InterContinental Hotels Group


11 January 2015


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