Small, consistent changes, pioneering leadership, and more education are vital if the airline cabin interiors industry is to achieve its net zero and circularity goals; so said leaders from different sectors within the cabin interiors industry, brought together by AIX to discuss the role of the circular economy in cabin construction as part of a series of roundtable events.
The lively panel discussion was led by Matthew Nicholls from Tapis Corporation with contributions from Chris Brady, CEO, Unum Aircraft Seating; Nico den Ouden, COO, Generation Phoenix; Sohaib Ahmed, Programme Manager – Interiors, AJW Technique Interiors; and Ben Smalley, Director of Business Development, SEKISUI KYDEX.
The session began with panel members sharing their views on the role cabin interior manufacturing can play in the drive towards a zero-carbon future for the airline industry.
“We have to play a role as citizens of the planet, much less of the industry and all businesses; people are going to have to make lots and lots of small changes. We’re not looking for some magic wand or one great big banner-waving initiative. It’s about just chipping away,” said Unum Seating’s Chris Brady, who stressed his belief that progress lies with leadership, rather than technology.
“There are lots of technologies that are going to be deployed, but we need to create demand for them, and we need to create a burning platform as leaders to make sure that the people who work around us are making changes in the right direction,” he said, highlighting that this means supplying all the information people and businesses need to make informed decisions.
He added that where currency – be it dollars or any other currency – is currently the ultimate measure of competing products and profitability, the conversation needs to shift. “We’ve got to add another currency to profitability, which is climate impact and carbon dioxide equivalent… As a society, and certainly as an industry and as managers, we’ve got to work out how we’re going to measure what good looks like.”
He underlined that most people understand the price of a cup of coffee, but few have a sense of how many kilos of carbon dioxide emissions or equivalent is produced by making a cup of coffee on a flight, adding: “We’ve got to change that.”
Small changes, big impact
Nico den Ouden, COO of Generation Phoenix, the materials recycling and repurposing specialist, said it is possible for the industry to ‘move the needle’ towards a circular economy by learning from other industries, such as consumer markets where many products provide cradle-to-cradle, life cycle information.
“That’s a starting point of dissecting what one material versus another will contribute to carbon emissions…The planet has produced enough natural resource of raw materials in the past and we should be learning how to reuse what’s around us while trying to maintain the economic value as much as we can,” he told his fellow panel members.
Ben Smalley, Director of Business Development for SEKISUI KYDEX stressed net zero is achievable if everyone plays their part. “I think we know that we all have to play a part in it…and that will be incremental. It’s not going to be through just recycled plastics or leather.
It’s how they’re made. It’s down to the manufacturing process, how they’re shipped. However, I get worried that the industry is so hung up on this massive net zero target, that it’s not making those little incremental steps that need to be made.”
He told the panel that education is crucial, followed by a need for the industry to take a look at itself and measure its output in a coherent way. “I think we as an industry have to get aligned on tackling the fundamentals before we can reach for something like net zero, and every single one of us has to play a part in it – whether that’s providing products that are recycled and/or sustainable, down to the manufacturing process of products.”
Sohaib Ahmed, Programme Manager – Interiors, AJW Technique Interiors, made the point that the right conversations are taking place, with operators asking about the life cycle of materials at the point of seat cover changes.
“Unfortunately, when seat covers are made with the lamination foam and adhesives, 90% of the time they do end up in landfill. But there are some repurposing programs, such as that for Southwest Airlines, where they’re converting leather seat covers into school bags for certain communities,” he said, also pointing to companies that can convert fabric seat covers into yarns for carpet and underlay manufacturing.
“Every operator we’re working with right now has the same question… ‘What do we do towards the end of the life of seat covers?’”
However, he stressed there is still the issue of who pays for that repurposing. “Do airlines remove all the covers from, let’s say 100 aircraft, send them to a facility where, there’s a team working on them, sorting out the covers and manufacturing into these bags, for example?”
Matthew then asked the panel if sustainability and design for end-of-life means compromising.
Chris was emphatic that designing products with sustainability in mind does not mean compromising. “Idon’t agree with the mindset that says green is worse or somehow less luxurious or will diminish the passenger experience. To design is to choose.
You make a series of choices, and you make those choices based around the requirements and your constraints. And you just need to add a new constraint, which is how much carbon is involved and what the end-of-life story is. And then you come up with really clever new solutions.
“That’s why I say there are loads of small choices, because every time you pick up the pen to draw a shape or to define something, you’ve got to consider its performance – it’s old-fashioned performance, as in certification strength and cost, which is the business requirement, and now, a new business requirement which is it’s life cycle analysis.”
Driving change from the top down
Matthew then asked panel members how they believe the industry can increase its knowledge around zero carbon and the circular economy, and better understanding of materials. “And then how do we track and trace and sort of control those materials?” he asked.
Ben stressed:“It has to come from leadership and be part of your company’s core DNA.” And Nico added: “There’s still there’s still a lot of hurdles to overcome, but I’m convinced it has to go in that direction because otherwise, how would you know you’re moving towards your target of net zero and you’re moving the needle in the right direction?”
Chris added that it was important to understand that the industry’s net zero efforts should not be a tick box exercise, but a conviction that it’s the right thing to do. He also made the point that sustainability moves can only continue to improve the passenger experience.
He also made the point that “there’s nothing special about aviation”, and it should learn from other industries. “We just need to join in with the world and get on with producing life-cycle analysis,” he said, with Ben adding that the industry needs “more pioneers to lead the way”, because regulations typically form over time and by example. “I don’t want everybody to get so hung up on waiting for regulation rather than pioneering what the future can be.”
Concluding the discussion, Nico said: “It comes back to my life cycle analysis. Rather than reinventing the wheel, we should just utilise the tools, which are around it and drive them through the industry.”