Rethinking the Airplane Post-Corona

2020-06-17

Aya Bentur  

Airbus Materialise 3D Printed Panel - back

It seems that a lot has changed these last few months as COVID-19 pushed us to re-examine and shift common practices. We’ve discussed what a pandemic can teach us about the supply chain and the role AM can play in new supply chains. This week, as we wait for the skies to open and for the return of regular flights across the world, we will focus specifically on air travel and rethinking the airplane post-Corona.

Immediate Actions

British Airways uses Seats for cargo

Air travel is one of the fields that have been heavily affected by the COVID-19 outbreak. Most flights have been canceled, some are left empty from passengers, and at the same time, air shipping has been disturbed to the point of scarcity. Lately, questions have been rising regarding what will be the new normal when it comes to air travel. A few scenarios suggest redesigning the interior of the plane, taking into consideration social distancing, health measures, and so on. An immediate action can be taking out every other chair, allowing some distance between passengers. British Airways, back in March when flights have stopped operating regularly, began operating flights only for cargo, using only the aircraft hold, shortly thereafter they started carrying cargo on the seats (above) and later on the company removed seats (below) and the entire interiors of 2 aircraft. The Boeing 777-200 planes which were grounded due to COVID-19 transformed into freighters carrying crucial cargo such as protective personal equipment as well as essential goods like food and medicine. This allowed for an extra 100 cubic meters of cargo on each flight.

British Airways Removes Seats for Cargo

Making Adjustments

While British Airways transformed a passenger plane to a cargo plane altogether, other solutions look at how the plane can be redesigned for passenger travel when the time comes. Redesigning the interior can include elements such as those implemented in stores at the moment: plexiglass separators, personal sanitizer dispensers, and so on. Another line of thinking takes into consideration the obvious health issues together with financial issues stemming from adhering to the limitations to be put in place in order to allow safe air travel. The solutions HAECO Cabin Solutions and safety products company Trip & Co suggest is incorporating passenger air travel with air shipping, using cargo to create separation between passengers. Utilizing the empty spaces for cargo can also save costs when it comes to operating half-empty planes, and combining services to avoid 2 air crafts flying to the same location – one for passengers and the other for goods.

HAECO cargo solutions for passenger cabins - Photo- HAECO

Additively Manufacturing Solutions

No matter what the chosen solution will be, redesigning an existing airplane requires adaptability, fast and effective changes. There is an undeniable need for flexibility in these uncertain times. Things will continue to evolve and will likely continue to change – there is no new normal yet and it might take quite some time to reach a permanent state of new normal. Solutions will probably go through a number of iterations as guidelines are changing according to the extent of the outbreak and knowledge of the virus’s behavior. Quick actions such as the British Airways pivot is necessary for a company’s bottom line (or survival). Stripping the airplane is of course not as time-consuming as designing, manufacturing, and installing new interior parts, but using AM can provide a solution for the new plane in the very near future.

EOS 3D Printed Air ducts for laminar flow Material- PA 2200

 

Airplane companies have already been incorporating interior parts such as panels (Materialise for Airbus up top), shafts, and cable ducts, for regular use as well as replacement parts. These parts are not necessarily critical parts but they do require adhering to certification processes specific to air travel. This is to say that the groundwork is already set, now it’s time to use it to redesign the post-Corona airplane. It could be small adaptations like additively manufacturing holders for hand-sanitizers, add-ons to door handles, or coating surfaces with copper which is known as an antibacterial material that can reduce the spread of the virus through surfaces. In the longer term, it seems that modularity and flexibility will be important.

I can imagine the whole chair or chairing system being redesigned to include parts and dividers that can be easily replaced, changed and cleaned according to needs or an add-on that transforms a chair to accommodate cargo so that the cargo separators can be moved (if a couple is flying together there is no need for a divider between them) and so on. Going further the entire operation on the inside of the plane can be redesigned for easy maintenance and sanitization, for example, air ducts (already AM produced – by EOS above) which can be easily taken apart and cleaned.

With Cost Reduction in Mind

As a side note, expanding the use of AM in redesigning the airplane post-Corona has other advantages. It makes sense that the prices of flights will go up in the near future, taking into account the need to overcome the crisis of the last few months coupled with the fact that it seems each plane will accommodate fewer people. Flexibility will play a role in the financial survival of airline companies, whether it’s shifting the plane’s use from passengers to cargo to keep some income when flights are grounded, or finding new ways to reduce costs in regular operations. Here is an opportunity to think about how AM can reduce costs. Again this isn’t anything new – consolidating parts, or designing lighter parts using AM are practices that are currently in place with the goal of reducing fuel consumption and CO2 emissions, and thus reducing costs. Reducing fuel consumption not only saves costs on the fuel itself but it allows a company to avoid taxes on CO2  emissions. This is just an opportunity to take these initiatives a step further into mainstream use.

Any thoughts on how your next flight will look and feel like? Tell us about it in the comments below or email us. For more insights and information follow us on LinkedIn or subscribe to our newsletter for weekly updates.

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