Flights of Fancy

On its website, Airbus waxes poetic in describing the future of the airplane cabin — “Future-gazing by Airbus shows blueprints for radical aircraft interiors. Airbus engineers talk of morphing seats made from ecological, self-cleaning materials, which change shape for a snug fit; walls that become see-through at the touch of a button, affording 360-degree views of the world below; and holographic projections of virtual decors, allowing travelers to transform their private cabin into an office, bedroom or even a ‘zen garden.’”

David Trent, the affable site manager for Airbus Americas Engineering Inc., in Mobile, oversees a staff of cabin and cargo engineers who dream up such fantastic visions of what could be one day. But on a more practical level, they’re concerned with the comfort and safety of passengers, with green solutions for the environment and with profitability for the airlines whose names are festooned on jetliners made by Airbus.

The Toulouse, France-based company made news around the world in July, when it announced plans to build airplanes in Mobile, the site of its first American production facility, with plant construction set to begin in the summer of 2013.

But the company has been a presence in Mobile for more than five years as the engineering center where airplane interiors are born (or reborn).

Collaboration encouraged

Trent was the first Airbus employee hired to work in Mobile, back on Halloween Day in 2005. Charged with establishing and building an office in Mobile, he and an initial team of employees trained in Hamburg, Germany, and worked in another Airbus facility in Wichita, Kan., while the new engineering center was built at Mobile’s Brookley Aeroplex.

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In February of 2007, Airbus’ Mobile office opened with 35 employees. Today, 225 engineers, technical designers and support staff work in the sleek two-story building that overlooks moss-strewn oak trees and the glistening Mobile Bay. “It’s a very open environment, ” Trent explains from his relatively modest corner office that boasts one of the building’s few doors. “It’s designed to increase the amount of collaboration on designs.”

Working in a sea of cubicles with low walls, engineers are divided into four groups that are charged with designing and retrofitting the cabins and cargo areas of Airbus’s product lines: the A350, a brand-new plane expected to enter service in 2015; the double-decker A380; the versatile, long-range A330 widebody; and the aftermarket group working on the bestselling aircraft family ever, the single-aisle A320.

The Mobile team is part of a larger organization centered in Hamburg, Germany that comprises 15 percent of Airbus’s total workforce of 55, 000 employees. The Mobile employees are always reminded of their relationship with Germany; clocks in the break room show Mobile time and Hamburg time (seven hours ahead). Mobile’s office hours begin at 7 a.m. to allow the maximum amount of time to teleconference with Hamburg, before the German workday ends.

Trent points to an enlarged rendering of the inside of an A350 cabin as most airplane travelers have never seen or considered it. The cross-section view shows the familiar seat with overhead storage, but it also shows the complex assortment of above-the-ceiling wiring that controls air and lighting systems, as well as the cargo loading section beneath the seats — all of which are part of the job of the Airbus cabin and cargo engineer.

The average passenger probably doesn’t think much about overhead bin design, but the engineering team does. Bins have to hold 250 pounds of baggage, be accessible to both the 6'4″ and the 4'10″ passenger and stay closed during flight. The cargo area needs to be as spacious as possible, because it’s a revenue generator for airlines, Trent points out. “Airlines are in business to make money, and they make it in any way they can. We help them maximize that.”

Imaginations at work

One of the biggest challenges for the Airbus engineers and designers in Mobile is the in-flight entertainment system (IFE). “People are used to using their iPads, ” Trent says. Three years ago, USB ports weren’t needed, but engineers anticipate the day passengers will demand to use their own devices for in-flight entertainment.

The team also is working on using new, lightweight materials; designing seats to be more ergonomic and comfortable and finding germ-resistant surfaces for on-board restrooms. Even lighting gets a look, since new research says some shades of light can help fend off jet lag.

“We look at all kinds of trends, ” says Trent. “We follow the auto, bus and rail services worldwide, and we watch consumer electronics.”

Cabin design can be tricky, Trent explains, because it’s “a very different environment, ” which moves from the ground to 40, 000 feet and changes temperature quickly. “A lot of engineering goes into the cabin that is sometimes overlooked and not appreciated.”

While the lifecycle of an airplane is about 25 to 30 years, the cabin must be redesigned every five years or so. “The IFE is even shorter than that, so we have to be responsive, ” Trent says.

Home sweet home

Trent estimates that 80 percent of the employees are from somewhere other than Mobile, and they have an average of more than 15 years of industry experience. “It’s a diverse workforce, and we have a very low attrition rate, ” he says.

Employees are encouraged to become involved in the Mobile community, “allowing them to take root and be part of the fabric, ” he says.

The second floor of the Airbus building is striking, basically one large room with a high ceiling and exposed ductwork, hardwood floors, giant windows and cubicles as far as the eye can see, some 150 of them. “Everyone is in the same cubicle arrangements, so putting teams together is simple, ” Trent explains. “We moved 150 people in three hours recently.”

In the center of the room are centralized printing and copying stations, as well as a coffee bar where no employee can hide, because they’re right out in the open.

Teams are encouraged to self-manage, and each one has a “SQCDP board” that shows where they are in terms of Safety, Quality, Cost, Deliverables and People. Just past the coffee bar stands an A380 cockpit door module, a rare example of a tangible airplane component in an office where reality is more likely to be virtual.

At the existing Mobile facility, most of the engineers’ designing is done with complicated software programs. “We have to fly to Germany to get closer to the product. That’s a disadvantage of being a remote engineering center, but there are many benefits as well. It will be nice to have a final assembly line across the street to put our hands on if we need to.”

Downstairs are 85 more cubicles, plus the server room, which holds miles of network cables for the company’s complex IT system. Conference rooms are named after Airbus products, and a flat screen monitor in the hallway linked to employees’ Outlook calendars shows who has booked which room and when. Six videoconferencing facilities help Mobile employees communicate with their cohorts in Hamburg. A training room divides into a combination computer lab and classroom. And in the café, longtime Mobile caterer Alec Naman provides hot lunches every day because of the lack of restaurants nearby.

But that’s likely to change soon, when Airbus hires 1, 000 or so additional workers at its new assembly plant at Brookley Aeroplex. “It will transform Mobile and create an aerospace hub along the Gulf Coast that will be beneficial to the economies of all the coastal states, ” Trent says.

Michelle Roberts Matthews is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Mobile.

Michelle Roberts Matthews

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