By Kari Paul, MarketWatch
Would you spend a flight in the cargo hold with your luggage? That unusual idea is closer to becoming a reality after Airbus /zigman2/quotes/203769874/composite EADSF -1.39% and seatmaker Zodiac Aerospace released designs showing new uses for cargo holds — currently better known as the chilly spot where pets sometimes perish and battery fires sometimes start.
The companies are developing “sleeping berths” to be installed in long-range Airbus aircraft, they announced this week. The cavernous space will “offer new opportunities for additional services to passengers, improving their experience while enabling airlines to differentiate and add value for their commercial operations,” the companies said. The mock-ups showed reconfigured cargo holds with features including a children’s play pen, a conference room, and a lounge room, in addition to sleeping pods. Airbus and Zodiac will allow airlines to order the options on new aircraft or have existing aircraft retrofitted with new cargo holds starting in 2020.
The news comes after Alan Joyce, chief executive officer of Australian airline Qantas Airways /zigman2/quotes/205878984/delayed DE:QAN -1.27% , announced a similar plan to reinvent the cargo hold. Speaking in a meeting with the Australia-United Kingdom Chamber of Commerce in London in March , Joyce raised the idea of someday using the cargo hold for a new class of cabin, where some passengers could sleep in large pods and even exercise.
A mock up of other potential uses for a cargo space, including a children’s play room.
The suggestion was part of Joyce’s plan for “Project Sunrise,” his vision for a non-stop flight between Australia (from Sydney or Melbourne) to the United Kingdom and another direct flight to New York City within the next four years. Such a flight would take more than 20 hours, and could require a redesign of planes.
“In doing so we need to re-imagine the whole travel experience,” Joyce said in his speech. “Is there a new class that’s needed on the aircraft? What are the out-there ideas that could apply to this and really change air travel for the future? And nothing, nothing is off the table.”
Another Airbus mock up shows other potential uses for a cargo space, including a conference room for meetings.
Other airline executives have made outlandish promises about in-flight amenities in the past: Virgin Atlantic’s Richard Branson previously promised on-board casinos that never came to fruition. Lufthansa /zigman2/quotes/201210530/delayed XE:LHA -2.70% is reportedly working to develop in-flight yoga classes and other fitness experiences. Brian Sumers, airline reporter for travel analysis site Skift, said using cargo hold for sleeping may be more attainable.
“It wouldn’t be easy, and it might not be commercially viable, but it’s good to hear an airline executive talking about bringing train-style compartments to airplanes,” he said.
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Meanwhile, airlines may do better to focus on improving the basic flight experience before adding more bells and whistles, said consumer advocate Christopher Elliott. Qantas puts economy-class passengers in seats that are 17.5 inches wide and have a pitch — the space between a point on one seat and the same point on the seat in front of it — of 31 inches. That’s relatively standard for a major airline, but uncomfortable for a long-haul flight of 20 hours.
“It’s more profitable but it’s also highly unethical,” Elliott said of the seat pitch. “Instead of thinking about exercise rooms and luxury berths for its elite passengers, maybe Qantas should find ways of giving all of its customers a humane amount of legroom.”