Why a Movable Wall Is an Award Winner for Aircraft Cabin Design

Apr 13, 2018

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Airlines are struggling with what to do with the bulkhead wall between first class and economy. It’s nice to have a hard barrier between the cabins. No one in economy enjoys seeing passengers in front being treated better. And first class is more enjoyable when you don’t have to hear the “riffraff” in the back.

However, installing a divider between the cabins takes up a lot of valuable cabin space that could be used to give passengers more legroom, or — more realistically — add more seats to the cabin. That’s why more airlines are just installing curtains or small ceiling-hung barriers between the cabins, like on American Airlines’ jam-packed Boeing 737 MAX:

But, what if airlines could have the best of both worlds? What if you could have a bulkhead wall while still maintaining cabin space and recline in first class? Airline cabin designers have been trying to pick this lock with various designs, and at this year’s Aircraft Interiors Expo, Rockwell Collins offered a novel solution: an adjustable wall. The Silhouette MOVE is designed to be in one place for taxi, takeoff and landing.

Then, the top portion of the wall can be adjusted back a few inches once in the air to allow the rear row of first class to recline. Although doing so moves the bulkhead wall closer to front-row economy passengers’ heads, economy legroom is mostly unchanged.

The designers also threw economy passengers a bone with an opening at the bottom of the wall to allow carry-on bags to be placed under the first class seat in front of them.

Why not just leave the wall reclined the back position the whole flight? The answer is because regulators wouldn’t certify an aircraft with a wall like that. The needs to be a certain amount of space between passengers’ heads and any hard object. In the reclined position, the wall is too close to economy passengers’ heads.

According to the promotional materials at the Aircraft Interiors Expo, this simple solution allows airlines 10 more inches to utilize in the cabin — dropping the pitch between the last first-class row and the first row of economy from 62 inches to 52 inches.

And there are a few different things that airlines can do with this space. For single-aisle aircraft, Rockwell Collins suggests:

  • “Upgrade five rows to premium economy from economy” (32 inches to 34 inches of pitch)
  • “Create an additional row of six economy seats” (while also dropping five rows to 30-inch pitch and four rows to 29-inch pitch)

On a twin-aisle 3-3-3 configuration, airlines can “upgrade three rows to premium economy from economy.” And each of these implements have a large potential revenue number to entice airlines:

It’s a simple idea, right? Well, yes. But, it’s a solution that’s so in-demand that the Silhouette MOVE won a Crystal Cabin award for the innovation. For those unfamiliar, the Crystal Cabin awards are distributed for “outstanding achievements in the field of civil aircraft interior development.” Winning the award in the Cabin Systems category, the Silhouette MOVE shared the stage with winners like Qatar’s Qsuite and Bluebox Aviation System’s in-flight entertainment system for the visually impaired.

I sat in the economy seats for a demo of the wall being moved from the takeoff position to the cruise position. While yes, it was a bit strange to see a wall moving back toward you, the space didn’t feel any more cramped. My knees still had plenty of space, and I could easily lean forward to retrieve my bag from the seat in front.

If this simple innovation will allow more legroom between economy seats, I’m all for its implementation. If airlines use those extra 10 inches to further squeeze the economy cabin to add another row, I’m going to become much less of a fan.

This article has been updated since publishing to address questions from commenters.

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