Wired reports on a new patent that Airbus filed for in 2013 and which was approved this week: “…Airbus [is] reconsidering the boarding process with an idea to turn aircraft cabins into what amount to shipping containers.”
Airbus proposes “a removable cabin module, comprising a floor, an upper aircraft fuselage portion connected to the floor, and a first and a second end wall, wherein the first and second end walls, the floor and the upper aircraft fuselage portion form a cabin for transport of passengers, luggage, freight or combinations thereof.”
Passengers would board a module at the gate. Everyone sits down. The module would be lowered into the plane once it arrives.
Then when the plane makes it to its destination, the cabin module would be removed and swapped out for new passengers in their own module. And the plane goes on its way.
Airlines lose almost as much from slower boarding as they make in checked bag fees, ultimately netting mostly the tax savings since bag fees aren’t subject to the 7.5% excise tax on domestic airfares that applies to tickets themselves. This is big business, especially if airlines could recoup as much as $700 million a year each.
Of course, no aircraft has been designed to support this. And no airport has the infrastructure for it either. You’d need larger spacing between gates most likely, at the very least, in addition to as-yet-undesigned equipment.
If it did come to pass, there’s no reason to believe it would be any less comfortable for passengers than what we have today.
My prediction is this idea will be a total dud: It would lengthen boarding and deplaning times for passengers — and thus increase total travel time — even as it reduces the time it takes to swap out passengers for a given aircraft. Longer total travel times mean air travel is less desirable than other methods of transportation for short distances. Longer travel times mean less productivity, so it will be unpopular with an airline’s most lucrative business travelers. Corporate travel buyers will push back. It would shift some high yield customers to fly private.
It’s an engineering solution to a human problem, and ultimately airlines will succeed by providing more value to customers rather than becoming less convenient for customers. Airlines have re-banked their hubs because — even though it’s more expensive for airlines — it wins business by making connections more convenient and wasting less of passengers time.
So it’s an ingenious idea whose time likely won’t ever come.