Ask the pilot

Powder-blue seats, mauve curtains and golfing in Siberia. It's the strange, sometimes beautiful language of airliner cabins.

By Patrick Smith
Published January 26, 2007 12:00PM (EST)

Last week, Boeing unveiled a cabin mock-up of its new 747-8, scheduled for rollout in 2010. Those who've seen it are agog over the plane's interior architecture. According to a story from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the mock-up reveals "a world of soft curves, blue mood lighting and a sweeping entryway designed to take the boredom out of flying." Said Klaus Brauer, Boeing's director of customer satisfaction and revenue marketing (there's a yin-yang of a title for you): "The goal is to reconnect people with flying." They'll be doing that, or trying to, with arched ceilings, extra large windows, and the kinds of colors and patterns that, in Brauer's words, "you see when you dream of flying."

All well and good, though hype over the 747-8's innards reminds me somewhat of the grandiose plans for lower-deck lounges and piano bars on the original 747. Besides, once the airlines get hold of it, they'll be cramming in the seats and redecorating to their heart's content. To a large extent, a plane's interior will only be as impressive as its operator allows it to be. When airlines dream of flying, they may not see the same colors that Klaus Brauer does.

Meanwhile, responding to my comments about the terrible new Air-India livery a week ago, reader "Rachel C" submitted the following, still posted in Salon's online letters section: "So long as they keep that funky wallpaper on the inside, who cares about the outside?"

More on that wallpaper a bit later, but Rachel and Klaus got me thinking. Heaven knows I've spent enough time critiquing the tastefulness, or lack thereof, of various airline paint schemes. Maybe it's time to move this Sister Wendy act inside the plane. An airline's exterior scheme, I've always maintained, should evoke the imagery of its native country. Failing that, it ought to convey some spirit of the airline itself. Does this obligation not extend to the interior as well?

At the very least, the inside and the outside should work together in fomenting brand identity; both are large canvases providing ample opportunity for an airline to express itself. But perhaps it's the cabin where most of the focus should be. Carriers consign millions of dollars to big-name firms like Landor and Onoma to develop flashy liveries and emblems, yet their customers hardly notice. Gone are the days when people crowded into airport observation decks, like bird spotters in a tree hide, gawking at aircraft as they taxied past. Who among passengers even looks at his or her plane anymore? Heck, many departure gates don't have windows, while an increasing number of terminals are constructed in ways that, intentionally or not, prevent people from seeing outside. The real captive audience is sitting there in the cabin -- often for long hours at a time. Why not take advantage?

That's not to say, for instance, that KLM should splatter its cabins with chintzy windmills or Rembrandt lithographs. Neither are we yearning to see overhead bins turned into subway-style billboards or, as you'll already find on some airlines, tray tables plastered with advertisements. But an airplane's décor should, one way or the other, speak the language of its owners.

Delta did this quite well, I thought, with its now shuttered low-fares offshoot, Song. Whether or not you subscribed to the Song verve (it could be, at times, a bit too vivacious), it was all around you, from the lime- and tangerine-colored leather to the pre-departure music piped over the P.A. system.

As for that "funky wallpaper" aboard Air-India, most of it is gone now, sadly, replaced by conventional white paneling. In years past, millions of fliers enjoyed the elaborately illustrated sidewalls of the carrier's Boeing 707s and 747s. The designs varied plane to plane, concentrating on various mythological and religious themes from ancient India -- tales from the Mahabharata, depictions of the Buddha, etc. Google wasn't much help in tracking down examples, but I was fortunate to obtain this image, courtesy of a reader. The photographer asks to remain anonymous, but the year is 1981, and the airplane is a Boeing 747 named the "Emperor Kanishka." (Tragically, this was the very same aircraft blown up over the North Atlantic by Sikh extremists in June 1985, still the fifth-worst aviation catastrophe on record.)

Such fanciness used to be fairly common. A flip through one of my favorite books, Keith Lovegrove's "Airline -- Identity, Design and Culture," shows off a plethora of richly decorated cabins from decades past. Nowadays, it's easy to grow tired of off-white bins and flecked-gray paneling, but the frequency at which planes are sold, swapped and traded makes customizing every nook and cranny prohibitively expensive. A shame, really, because think of the potential: Royal Air Maroc doing up the walls in the tile-work motif of a Marrakech mosque; Garuda Indonesia coloring its planes with batik.

Seats, on the other hand, are still readily embellished. The results aren't always pleasant, but one way airlines differentiate themselves is by choice of upholstery. Normally there are separate schemes for economy, business and first class. Virtually every reputable airline has its own distinct style. It can be fun watching a movie or TV show, trying to pick out which airline was used for a shoot based on the seat cushions.

An upholstery update might come in conjunction with a total image makeover, but often it comes sooner. The constant wear and tear on seats means they need to be replaced periodically, giving frequent opportunity -- maybe too frequent -- for tinkering. Because of this, there's often a noticeable disconnect between an airline's seating schemes and its signature colors. Even the handsomest choices are often arbitrarily out of sync with the rest of the airplane.

Is there anything about this that says Qantas? Those wavy-patterned seats could be anybody's.

Or take a look at the Spanish flag carrier, Iberia. Here's Iberia on the outside. And here's Iberia on the inside. Granted both are ugly, but Iberia's tricolor exterior striping has been a trademark since the 1970s. If nothing else, can't they match?

(Note: You needn't remind me how irrelevant this is when service is crappy and the seats themselves are sadistically uncomfortable. We've dealt with those issues plenty of times before. See here and here. This time, we're having fun.)

Here's one to make your head spin. Have a peek at Turkish Airlines on the outside. And now, Turkish Airlines on the inside. I'd like to know why it was decided that an airline whose signature colors have for years been a bold red on white (in nice keeping with the Turkish flag) should be fitted with powder-blue chairs and mauve curtains? Finally, a good use for that "insulting Turkishness" charge levied against the country's writers. It's as if the interior and exterior designers were somehow trying to embarrass each other, or were forced to work in seclusion.

Maybe I'm thinking too hard, but I find these aesthetic non sequiturs distressing and unnecessary, and they seem to contradict all efforts at establishing brand identity.

Here's something better. This is business class on a Lufthansa A340. It's a tad industrial, but the blue base and gold highlights say Lufthansa all the way through. Note also the small touches -- the placement of logos, and the bulkhead racks containing Lufthansa timetables, brochures and postcards. (What U.S. airline even prints timetables anymore?) Lufthansa's economy class similarly gets the point across.

Inside Virgin Atlantic we see copious red and silver, which happen to be Virgin's signature cast. The futuristic seatbacks both in premium economy and standard economy evoke the brushed aluminum fuselage, as do the chrome appointments in the "upper class" in-flight bar, photographed here on a 747.

Or let's visit Emirates for a moment. The Dubai-based giant provides one of the best economy-class experiences around -- in a cabin one might describe as hideous. This Airbus A330 looks vaguely like the inside of my grandmother's house. I see peach. I see olive. I see lilac and I see pink. Certainly it is out of sync with Emirates' basic uniform, visible here.

Or is it? The more I look, the more it becomes subtly appropriate. Here's another, more flattering view to show what I mean. It's the sand tones, I think. They quietly complement the "Emirates" script on the fuselage. Plus, you know ... sand. Dubai and the desert. Catch the dunes on the bulkheads. I like it. And if I had the money for first class, I'd even get a pair of sand-colored pajamas.

Likewise with first class on an Air France 777. Absent are the red, white and blue traditionally associated with Air France (and still proudly on display in economy), but it's chic, sleek and ineffably French.

Of course, if the only thing you're trying to convey is the intangible sense of luxury, it doesn't always matter what colors or textures you pick. There are some pretty bland hues in the Etihad Airways "Diamond Zone," but with a 6-foot sleeper and 23-inch video screen, who really cares? Same story on this Emirates 777. No reason to pout over d´cor when you're ensconced in your own private bed, pouring yourself a drink from the minifridge. On an Emirates A340, you can hunker down inside your private cubicle. It's an overwrought cross between a Catholic confessional and a Vegas hotel room, but when it's 14 hours to Dubai, I'll take it. (Check out the dinner ensemble.)

Austrian Airlines' markings are centered on red, white and baby blue. But if I'm forced to contemplate lime carpeting for the chance to relax here, that's perfectly OK. And although Polish carrier LOT's corporate palette in no way incorporates orange, I absolutely love this 767 business class.

These exceptions work to a point. Behold this cutting-edge setup at Japan Airlines. It's swanky, minimalist and ergonomically elegant. But under no circumstances, ever, should an airplane seat be white.

The photos we've been looking at, by the way, are culled from the tens of thousands of examples available through the "cabin views" feature on Airliners.net. (I'm not sure what it says about my pilot DNA that I spend more time looking at pictures of seats than pictures of cockpits.) Surfing through the archives, what I'm seeing overall is too heavy a reliance on navy and a depressing preponderance of gray.

Bring this up with an aircraft interior designer, and you're liable to hear about the need to keep things neutral, uniform and conservative. The goal isn't to impress people, it's to keep them relaxed. When colors are too bright or patterns too busy, passengers get claustrophobic and start tipping over galley carts. (How would you feel after nine hours in this Biman Bangladesh DC-10, assuming it's no longer 1960?) But I'm not buying it. As several carriers have already shown us, there are ways to be soothing and stylish at the same time. And simplicity shouldn't mean total abandonment of brand recognition.

As usual, with certain exceptions, it's non-U.S. airlines that tend to think outside the box. And doing so needn't be expensive. You'll often see framed artwork on the bulkheads of Asian and European airlines, even in the lavatories. What do a few small lithographs add to the cost of a jetliner worth tens of millions of dollars? Or, it can be something as simple as the long-haul mood lighting available as an option on certain Boeing and Airbus models. Here's an Emirates 777 with the lighting cycle at "sunrise."

Several years ago I flew economy on an Ecuadorian carrier called Saeta. Upon boarding, one discovered a white carnation at each seat, tucked by its stem into the space between the tray table and seat back. A most hospitable touch, and it was cheap. The outlay for a little bit of refinement won't cast an airline into bankruptcy. Look at economy class on this 767 belonging to Austria's Lauda Air. There's nothing expensive about it, nonetheless it's immaculate, fetching and brimming with personality. Check the fat tomato pillows, perfectly placed, and the whimsical airplane motif.

By contrast, here's business class on a United Airlines 747. What a yawn. Message to customers: We're giving you this comfortable semisleeper and loads of amenities, but please don't enjoy it too much! Even United's first-class suites are utterly cheerless. This seat doubles as a lethal injection station when the plane isn't flying.

Marginally better are quarters at American. There's nothing wrong, exactly, with a business class that looks like this. It's just boring. (Though, to its credit, A.A. has finally dispensed with that awful checked-pattern theme in economy -- one of the ugliest airplane seats ever seen.)

Of all the U.S. players, the choicest seats are probably those of the ultimate cost-cutter, Southwest. The pudding and navy combo isn't anything too quirky, but it's crisp and good-looking, and it clearly speaks "Southwest."

Though if you're going to "speak" at all, please try to do so in a manner that somebody somewhere can understand. Character is one thing, incoherence is something else. I'll leave you with this. I don't know about you, but when I think about Siberia, I think about golf.

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Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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