When Brussels Airlines decided to upgrade its fleet with Airbus A330-300s, there was also an opportunity to introduce a completely new cabin throughout the aircraft, with assistance from JPA Design.
The history of Brussels Airlines dates back to 2002 when mother company SN Airholding was created by a group of about 40 investors. This followed the collapse of Sabena, the original flag carrier.
In 2009, Lufthansa Group acquired an initial 45 per cent stake in SN Airholding and then took over completely in December 2016. The airline currently serves more than 90 destinations in Europe, 23 in Africa, three in North America, and Tel Aviv, with a fleet of Airbus A330s and A319/320s.
As a result of the takeover, it was possible to upgrade the A330 fleet, replacing seven of the 10 aircraft with Lufthansa-owned aircraft as leases expire until 1Q20. A further three aircraft will be added later, with completion scheduled for 2022.
Brussels Airlines is immensely proud of being the national airline and sees an important role in promoting all aspects of Belgian culture. This obviously includes food, wine and beer, and the airline is working with Thierry Theys, whose Nuance restaurant in Duffel holds two Michelin stars; Fiona Morrison, Master of Wines; and Sofie Vanrafelghem, Master Beer Sommelier.
In the same way, it draws on other cultural references, such as Art Nouveau, and the architects Victor Horta and Henry van de Velde, and this is reflected in its Business Class lounge at Brussels Airport, The Loft. It also likes to promote the quirky, idiosyncratic nature of Belgians, known as Belgitude.
Two physical examples are the Atomium and the Mannekin Pis, while creative examples include the surrealist painter René Magritte, and Peyo, the cartoonist who designed those little blue creatures, the Smurfs.
Both of the latter are represented in special paint schemes on Airbus A320s, along with other liveries called Trident (the national football team), Tomorrowland (a huge Belgian electronic dance music festival, held, onomatopoeically, in Boom) and Rackham (featuring Tintin, by the cartoonist Hergé). As the sixth aircraft will be unveiled shortly, this could be the airline’s own Belgitude showing through.
This also showed in the launch of the new cabin. Brussels Airlines took over a derelict building in the city centre and converted part of it into a series of experience rooms, each holding examples of the seats in Business, Premium Economy and Economy, as well as a tasting of the food, wine and beer to be served on board.
The project for Brussels Airlines started in late 2016, with an RFP being sent to a number of leading design agencies. This called for a design that reflected the ethos of the airline; the spirit of the country and its people; a new Premium Economy Class; and a Business Class cabin with a boutique hotel feel to reflect the passengers’ main demand – sleep.
Another requirement was the use of Thompson Vantage and ZIM magic and NGflexible seats that are used across the Lufthansa Group airlines. In early 2017, the contract was awarded to London-based JPA Design.
John Tighe, design director, transport, says it was a very thorough evaluation of who connected best with the brand. For JPA, key attributes were experience of hotel design from another side of the company, airline experience and Fred Vanden Borre, who had just joined as product and transportation designer, and was Belgian, having trained there before completing his studies in London.
The first step was an intense, four-day immersion in the country and its culture, in Brussels and Antwerp, and in the airline and its culture, including discussions with cabin crew. This was led by Head of Cabin Product, Eric Kergoat.
Business Class has 30 Vantage seats, in a low-density staggered configuration for maximum privacy and with 90 per cent of seats having direct aisle access. However, a closer look at the LOPA shows an unusual mix of 1-2-1 and 2-2-1.
There are two types of double seats, aimed at couples and individual travellers, but there are further variations beyond that, bringing in the boutique feel. Kergoat says this provides a wider range of options for passengers than a conventional arrangement, who can stick with their favourite or try something new.
Privacy dividers contain a large fold-out table. The height has been carefully determined to allow passengers to converse across the top but only a slight recline of the seat provides privacy. There is a pad covered in Ultraleather on the side, which provides a soft touchpoint while also absorbing sound.
This incorporates the seat number marker, which doubles as a hook for noise-cancelling headphones. In the corner, there is a water bottle holder with a red interior, picking up on the airline colour scheme. Tighe says this is a small but important detail and has to be carefully designed to provide maximum effect with minimal cost.
There is a moveable reading light and an ambient light that can be dimmed – blue LED lighting in various parts of the seats will dim at the same time, and both will switch off when the seat is in bed mode, although this can be overridden.
By linking up with an ottoman in the footwell under the seat in front, there is a 2m fully flatbed. This incorporates a pneumatic cushion system from Lantal with adjustable pressure to ensure the right level of firmness for each passenger and a massage function.
As well as a lower drawer, there open storage spaces for smaller items in the upper half of the seat. Zodiac’s RAVE IFE system is available throughout the aircraft, as is a mood lighting scheme with four colour schemes, with an adjustable 15.6in HD screen in Business Class.
That architectural influence appears through the use of wooden panels and surfaces. They are actually Kydex with the colour and grain pattern of birch wood injected directly into the material using SEKISUI’s Infused Imaging process. Tighe makes the point that there is an honest use of materials.
By this, he means that the wood effect is natural. One of the takes from Art Nouveau is the use of gentle curves. Instead of hard edges, there are rounded corners but, and, where the honesty comes in, they look as though they could be formed by steam pressure.
Some airlines use wood appearance in shapes that are impossible to form from a natural piece of timber. Alessia Giardino, lead colour & materials, brand & trends designer at JPA, adds that the material has a matt effect, which is much more contemporary than a highly varnished appearance.
The vault design of Antwerp’s historic central station provided the reference for the carpet pattern (Desso is the supplier for all cabins). Tighe says this uses a large repeat pattern, not often used by aircraft cabin designers as they are concerned it may dominate.
However, it is common in hotel design, so this draws on the company’s other experience. He says it bridges the gap between the small details in the fabrics and the large rear bulkhead panel. Rohi is the single fabric source for the project.
Giardino says there was a requirement for a blue seat to match the brand and, at first glance, this was met but subtle touches of red have been used that break up the blue at closer quarters. In Business Class, famous Belgian fashion designers like Dries Van Noten were an inspiration.
Textured blue stitching gives an embossed feel but an inner small red dot pattern breaks down the solid colour effect. Red double stitching is used to reflect the airline’s motto ‘we go the extra smile’. The rear bulkhead panel, from ABC International, uses the wood effect Kydex, gentle curves and the logo from The Loft, with 3D printed letters.
A laminate with a wavy reflective metallic print is used here and on the forward bulkhead, the metal effect appearing and disappearing as the light angle changes. Unusually, all the Business Class seats are fitted with three-point belts, as in a car.
The Door 2 area contains a full galley and separates Business from Premium Economy. The sides of the galley units on the port side, the boarding side, now incorporate a Business Class signature panel, taking cues from The Loft and the rear bulkhead panel, and a general ‘Welcome Aboard’ sign.
A perimeter-lit dome light is a smaller version of a major feature of The Loft. Once in cruise and first meal service is complete, the rear half of the galley is covered by a drop-down screen. The upper section of the forward half is then transformed into a self-service bar and social area for Business Class passengers, with wine beer, coffee and snacks.
The new Premium Economy cabin has 21 ZIM magic seats in a 2-3-2 configuration. At 31in pitch, it offers 23 per cent more legroom than in Economy, and at 19in, is 1in wider. A 7in (40˚) recline is 2.5in more than in Economy. It also has a larger, leather-covered headrest and a fold-out footrest.
There are individual centre armrests that contain fold-out tables. Bottle holders are incorporated into the rear of the seat. There are a 13.3in HD touch screen and AC and USB power outlets at each seat. An IFE hand controller is mounted in the seat arm.
The bulkheads feature a plaque from ABC against a digital representation of the North Sea, which comes from the colour fade on some of the IFE graphics, inspired by Belgian comic strips. Splashes of red adorn the cocktail tray on the armrest and on the top of the stowage pocket in the side of the seat.
Stitching in the fabric seat cover repeats the smile while the cover itself, less textural than in Business class, has a 3D effect through the combination of a red honeycomb pattern and blue dots. The carpet is a simple design incorporating blue, warm grey and dark grey, as it will be changed more often.
The 244 seats ZIM NGflexible Economy Class seats are in a 2-4-2 configuration, except for the last three rows, where it becomes 2-3-2 because of the tapering rear fuselage. These are 18in wide and set at 31in pitch, although the design of the seatback provides more living space.
There is improved shaping for the seatback, a higher rotation axis to give more lumbar support, and the armrests are longer for improved comfort. The recline is 4.5in (11˚). A single leaf fold-out table is located in the seatback. The catch incorporates a coat hook and there is another hook on the side of the seat.
There is a 10.1in HD touch screen with a USB power outlet. A neat touch on the headrest, which has folding side tabs for privacy, is a small tab at the base, which folds forward to provide an additional neck support.
The bulkheads feature a plaque and digital interpretation (this time, sunrise on the North Sea) and the red is repeated across the top of the seatback stowage pocket and in a pixel pattern, with blue, on the seat fabric.
The colour scheme in this cabin is much warmer, reflecting that many passengers will be travelling on holiday. Similarly, the pixel pattern is a reflection of the greater use of the IFE system for the same reason.
The design effort has been led by London-based JPA Design (see separate story), while technical engineering support for the certification of the conversion will be done by AKKA in Toulouse.
The installations will take place at EFW in Dresden, and Joramco in Amman. Each cabin requires €10,000,000 of investment; 25,000 parts from 40 suppliers in 10 countries; 20,000 engineering manhours; and 6,000 manhours of installation work.
Visit brusselsairlines.com for more information.