(Credit: Crystal Cabin Award)

The best innovation in aviation

The cleverest advances in air travel are sometimes the small touches – changes within the cabin that you might not have even noticed, says William Cook.

When someone mentions advances in aviation, what sort of images spring to mind? The latest futuristic jumbo jet concept? Flying taxis? Jet powered backpacks?

These are the inventions that grab the headlines of course, yet some of them remain fantasies. Sure, you see the odd prototype on television, but that’s about as close as you ever get to one. The likes of Richard Branson may get to use one, one day – but regular travellers like you and me won’t be using one anytime soon.

For most of us, the innovations that are transforming plane travel are a lot more discreet. Indeed, we hardly notice them – but they’re happening all the time. Flying is changing fast, in ways that often escape the eye, and a lot of the biggest changes are happening inside the cabin.

As more and more of us are flying and competition between airlines is becoming increasingly intense, the most important innovations are rarely the most glamorous. Rather, they’re usually behind-the-scenes improvements that increase comfort and efficiency, giving the airlines that adopt them a crucial cutting edge.

The Crystal Cabin Awards is an annual prizegiving, with awards given to inventors and designers who’ve come up with bright ideas to improve daily life inside the cabin – for passengers and flight crew, and for the moneymen (and women) who look after the bottom line.

The gizmos that win awards this year could be on board next time you travel. So, what sort of devices should we be looking out for? And how will they change the way we fly?

One of my favourite innovations didn’t actually win a prize this year, but I feel sure it’ll soon be standard on every major airline. As frequent flyers know too well, carry-on luggage is a major headache. On crowded flights, getting everyone’s hand baggage stowed in the overhead bins takes ages, and this is an industry where every minute on the ground is dead money.

To help alleviate this growing problem, a company called Zodiac Aerospace have come up with something called the ECOS Baggage System (ECOS stands for Efficient Cabin, Open Space). Like all the best ideas, it’s relatively basic. A green light above each locker door lights up when there’s still space inside, and only goes out when it’s full. Cabin crew have an even smarter handheld device, which shows red, yellow and green logos for each locker, depending on whether it’s full, half-full or empty. Remarkably, this simple system increases capacity by nearly 40% - and it speeds up boarding, too.

Another sort of sensor has been pioneered by European manufacturer Airbus, this time to eliminate a common and costly mistake. Apparently, when cabin crew open the aircraft doors, due to fatigue or stress they sometimes activate the emergency escape slides by mistake. Incredibly, this human error costs the aviation industry an estimated $38m (£28m) per annum, worldwide. The Watchdog sensor warns crew members whenever there’s movement near the handle – an ingenuous add-on which stands to save airlines precious millions of dollars every year.

Waste disposal is another big nuisance on board. The Airbus ReTrolley is half the size of a regular trolley, yet it recycles passengers’ rubbish as cabin crew push it through the cabin. There’s a foot pump for compressing larger items, and separate compartments for organic and liquid waste.

Likewise, going to the lavatory isn’t something we like to dwell on when we’re travelling, but it’s an essential issue on every flight. Zodiac Aviation’s Revolution Toilet is made of recyclable materials, making it 30% lighter than older toilet bowls – that’s a weight saving of about 3kg per toilet. Its 360-degree flush uses a third less water, and it’s more hygienic too.

Unless you’re disabled, or caring for a fellow passenger who isn’t able bodied, the challenges of using an aeroplane toilet if you’re a wheelchair user probably isn’t something you’ve even thought about. Thankfully, researchers at Hamburg University of Applied Sciences have developed a customised wheelchair with a special seat that slots straight over the toilet, turning an awkward ordeal into a straightforward routine.

There are all sorts of other innovations in the pipeline. Diehl Aerospace, in collaboration with Lucerne University of Applied Sciences & Arts, has found a way of combining power and data cables, turning two sets of ‘cable spaghetti’ into one. The result is a considerable reduction in wiring, weight and volume, reducing fuel consumption and cutting back on CO2 emissions.

Meanwhile, Delft University of Technology has come up with a Bluetooth device called Myseat which guides passengers from check-in to plane.

Yet it’s the most prosaic development which may well prove to be the most practical and enduring. Airbus and Recaro have mounted airline seats on rails, so that seating configuration can be easily adjusted by the cabin crew, depending on the load in different classes on different flights. And best of all, this new seating comes with fold-up seats. It’s such an obvious idea, you wonder why no-one ever thought of it before. But then again, they probably said the same thing about whoever invented the wheel.

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