When Japanese LCC Skymark announced in 2010 that it was planning to order four A380s plus two options, it was a milestone in the airline’s history – and indeed airline history – as the aircraft were to be all-premium class with lie-flat beds, and would also mark the beginning of Skymark’s international routes. Quite a step up for an LCC flying a B737-800 fleet on domestic routes. However, subsequent exchange rate woes and fierce domestic LCC rivalry led to a downturn in the airline’s finances, and ultimately in Airbus canceling the order and Skymark filing for bankruptcy protection.
Although the world’s first all-premium A380 won’t be taking to the skies, we can share a few details of the interior. The interior elements were all designed, ordered and built, though the order was canceled before any of it found its way onboard. Daniel Baron, CEO of LIFT Strategic Design, a Tokyo-based consultancy dedicated to airline brand and cabin interior design, was the creative force behind the interiors.
Aircraft Interiors International (AII): It has been nearly a year since Skymark’s A380 order was canceled. What was the cabin design program like, and what can you tell us about the airline’s intended products?
Daniel Baron (DB): The cancellation was torturous emotionally, particularly after three years of work. For the record, Airbus, Stelia (previously known as Sogerma) and Skymark have granted permission to discuss certain aspects of the program, with images. I am grateful to them for the consent.
Skymark’s CEO at the time of the A380 order, Shinichi Nishikubo, stated that the A380 would be in a two-class, all-premium configuration. That included fully flat seat hardware manufactured by Stelia. It is a variation of the Equinox seat. The ‘3D’version of Equinox features seats that move down or up as they reach bed position, in order to increase seat count. Skymark’s was the first version developed as ‘2D’, with both pax reclining into the sleep position at the same level.
Above: Working closely with Stelia, LIFT edited the shapes of the seat shell, stowages, armrests and cushions to create a product that would appear organic and inviting, not heavy or overpowering
AII: Why so many business class seats?
DB: It is important to understand the context of the seat, i.e., why the CEO of Skymark, a budget carrier flying single-class B737-800s on domestic Japan routes, intended to fill an entire deck of an A380 with fully flat beds. The seat was not meant to be ‘business class’ in the traditional sense. Business class fares from Japan to Europe and North America are extremely high. The vision of CEO Nishikubo was to provide beds at a premium economy fare (still high in the Japanese market) and attract SME owners and corporate middle managers who could not justify the cost of flying long-haul business class on the network airlines. So in short, it was a traditional ‘business class’ seat product that would have been priced as premium economy.
Above: Each seat has a stowage space for personal items, incorporating a mood light that can be switched on or off via the seat control panel. The lights enhance the slightly edgy urban cafe concept, and provide an extra first impression ‘wow’ during boarding
AII: Going from 3D to 2D is a major change to the design. How else was the Equinox customized for Skymark?
DB: Working closely with Stelia, we re-shaped the shell, with a design language of soft curves and clean lines, so that this one-of-a-kind cabin looked contemporary and inviting to the airline’s Japanese customer base.
The seat design does not feature the sexy deep 3D curves of other products. It was conceived to be highly economical for the airline customer, and this drove every aspect of the design. That said, we created tangible “wow” by incorporating funky elements where possible, such as a stowage with mood lighting. And we focused on details such as cushion and armrest shaping, and the trim/finish, all of which communicated the airline’s desire to deliver greater long-haul comfort at a lower fare.
The seat was designed to maximize comfort for sleeping, with a 23in-wide bed at the widest point. Note the lack of open crevices around cushions. We and Stelia worked hard to ensure that the bed surface looked and felt as large as possible. At the same time, armrests were kept wide compared with many other similar seats. Many long-haul flights to and from Japan are in the daytime, so comfort for arms while eating, reading, working or watching a video was also considered.
Above: Great attention was paid to details such as the leading edge of the seat bottom cushion, giving it a soft curve. This provides greater comfort under the legs over time when the passenger is not in bed mode. And it means that the feet of customers with shorter legs are more likely to touch the floor, preventing embarrassment
AII: What about the bells and whistles you often see in A380s, such as lounges and customized lavatories?
DB: The project was entirely about the CEO’s vision, and in his mind, the inflight product did not include elaborate food and beverage services, embedded IFE or duty free. For the upper deck at least, his vision focused on extremely comfortable flat beds at a premium economy fare. Would that have been enough? I think it depends on the fare, route, time of day and how effectively the marketing communication could set expectations.
Above: The seat was designed to maximize comfort for sleeping, with a 23in-wide bed at the widest point. Note the lack of open crevices around cushions. LIFT and Sogerma/Stelia worked hard to ensure that the bed surface looked and felt as large as possible
AII: Cancellation aside, were you satisfied with the results of the work?
DB: During a period of three years, there were many, many meetings in Tokyo, Toulouse and at Stelia. To its credit, the seat manufacturer worked very hard to incorporate the requests of the client, and together we realized an extremely comfortable and functional full-flat product that is also (comparatively) lightweight.
AII: A year later, how do you feel about the project?
DB: As a designer who naturally wanted to see his “baby” fly, the disappointment was great. The program was, however, highly rewarding on many levels, particularly the very close collaboration between client, Airbus, Stelia and designer. Skymark has many dedicated, hard working people who have gone through way too much drama due to the previous CEO. During the program, all of us were focused on the same goal of improving the onboard experience for long-haul travelers in the context of a one-of-a-kind cabin.
July 9, 2015. All images courtesy of LIFT Strategic Design. For more images, visit the gallery HERE.
Below: Each seat has a stowage space for personal items with a mood light that can be switched on or off via the seat control panel
Below: The seat fabric used for Skymark’s A380 and A330 was designed around the cabin concept – a casual urban cafe in Tokyo – with a refreshing, youthful appearance and clear differentiation from the competition
Below: The upper deck lavatory, located in front of the forward staircase. The lavs were meant to be ‘standard’, with simple, clean trim to complement the seating zones.
Below: If you want to see the first two Skymark A380s, they are currently parked in Toulouse awaiting a new buyer. Pic credit: Gyrostat (Wikimedia, CC-BY-SA 4.0)