Aviation – a touch of class

5 January 2015

When it comes to luxury aircraft interiors and attention-to-detail service, the finest-quality materials are essential. Leather is a key component in achieving the right look and feel – and communicating the right brand values – in Virgin Atlantic’s new fleet of Dreamliners. Jim Banks speaks to senior designer Nik Lusardi about why leather is upper class.

Virgin Atlantic has spent a great deal of time and money to fit out the interiors of its new fleet of 787-9 Dreamliner aircraft, and leather plays a key role in achieving the sense of luxury and comfort that it wants to convey to passengers, particularly in its upper-class seats. The airline has invested £100 million in its new upper-class product, which includes not only the aircraft interiors, but also a 10,000ft2 clubhouse at New York's JFK Airport and other airport lounges around the world.

The new fleet of aircraft still initially fly from Heathrow to Boston six times a week, before taking on other key London to US East Coast routes such as Washington, Newark and JFK in the near future. As the fleet continues to grow, the Dreamliners will be used on longer-haul routes. On long flights, a sense of comfort and relaxation is essential for passengers and leather is one of the materials the airline has chosen to create the right atmosphere throughout the passenger cabin. It has also been used extensively in achieving the kind of luxury that upper-class passengers expect from an airline that not only has a strong brand identity, but has also already come to be seen as one of the leaders in design and service.

"We have an extremely knowledgeable customer base that knows our products inside out," says Nik Lusardi, senior designer at Virgin Atlantic. "They take a lot of interest and give us a lot of feedback. We listen to that feedback whether it is positive or negative. Our customers have an appreciation of quality, and leather is a key ingredient in achieving that in specific areas within the aircraft and in our lounges.

"Customer expectations have risen in segments such as business class. They tend to get out of semi-expensive German cars when they arrive at the airport and they buy a certain type of furniture, which means they have an appreciation of quality. Amid shifting customer expectations, leather and other finishes, prints, fabrics and plastics are all part of our holistic view of how to convey our brand. Everything on the aircraft is bespoke and gives us a unique identity."

A superior breed of aircraft

Lusardi, who has been with Virgin for the past ten years, was the lead designer for the airline's new 16-strong fleet of 787s, which represent a big step forward in terms of aircraft performance. Each aircraft has 264 seats, of which 31 will initially be configured as upper-class seats, 35 as premium-economy seats and the remaining 198 as economy seats.

The fundamental design principles of the aircraft will improve the quality of passenger experience. The windows are larger, the peaked ceilings make the interior more spacious, a new filtration system provides cleaner air, and the quieter engines and air conditioning systems create a calmer atmosphere.

Within this space, Lusardi had to define a design scheme that would accentuate the qualities of the interior and clearly communicate the core values of the Virgin brand. He decided to introduce a very clean finish that is enhanced by the use of a sophisticated colour palette and a full RGB mood-lighting system. There are also touches that speak to the uniqueness of the Virgin brand such as the design of the 'flying lady' and the new 'wander wall', which provides a social space in premium economy.

In the upper-class section, the redesigned cabin has a new subtle but sophisticated backdrop that is enhanced by the inclusion of dynamic lighting options. The finish of the upper-class suite features geisha-white paint touches of mica finish, as well as seats that are finished with espresso-colour leather and that recline to give a feeling similar to that of sitting in an armchair.

"The 787, for us, is a brand new state-of-the-art aircraft - probably the best aircraft in the world. It has big windows and flies higher, faster, more quietly and more efficiently. It is more stable in the air and it provides a greater sense of well-being, so we have tried to embrace that. It provides clear lines inside and it is very spacious," says Lusardi.

"Details collectively create the brand emotion and communicate it in a powerful way. That emotion is linked to where we are as a business. We are more sophisticated now. We are less brash and outlandish than before, when we used a lot of red. Now red is more of an undertone, though it still exists. The airline is 30 years old now, so we have gone through the teenage phase with the acne and the attitude, which helped to sculpt where we are now. We have a heritage and our customers love that because many of them have grown up with the brand," he adds.

Leather naturally conveys a sense of luxury, which Virgin wanted to emphasise throughout economy class as well as in upper class.

The seats in upper class are the UCS3 model from world-leading first and business-class seat manufacturer Zodiac UK. The leather Lusardi chose to use as a finish for the seats is of the highest quality and out of the many different options available he selected full-grain hides that have not been sanded, buffed or snuffed. Though these may have some impurities, they were carefully chosen for their colour and their texture.

"It is hardwearing, so it has better longevity than fabric and we sourced hides that are very much at the high end of the market. We use some leather in upper class and some in economy, and it is used in the headrest," says Lusardi. "The aim is to keep the brand conformity throughout the aircraft. In sourcing it, we created a brief for the hides and for the colour and then talked to manufacturers. Colour-matching has been hard at times because we want consistency and, although it was painful at first, we managed it through one supplier.

"We wanted a specific colour and a specific type of hide, but we also consider sustainability to be very important. It is part of who we are and part of our duty of care. We always do our utmost to source sustainable products; using organic processes for hides is always something that is in the back of our minds."

The details that create brand identity

Leather naturally conveys a sense of luxury, which Virgin wanted to emphasise throughout economy class as well as in upper class. It evokes the same feelings as expensive furniture in the home, for example, but much depends on the quality of the hides and the finish that is chosen. By going for an espresso colour and using full-grain hides, the airline has not only leveraged the associations with luxury that naturally come with leather, but added its own distinctive stamp of quality.

"There is more competition for customers than ever before, so we have to work out exactly what customers want. The more reactive you are to customers' opinions, the more successful you become. Leather works for us because it is a natural product and it has a very familiar feeling as well as an association with luxury. Commercially, for us, it has a slight weight penalty compared with fabric, but for our brand message it is better," Lusardi remarks.

The fundamental design principles of the aircraft will improve the quality of passenger experience.

"The look and feel is every bit as important as the technology we make available to passengers. It all goes into the same melting pot. The comfort of the seats is as important as the lighting or the service in defining our brand. Luxury travel is a growing market as global wealth increases and our company wants to attract more business. Customers expectations for luxury are changing, although elements like leather remain a consistent part of the luxury experience."

The attention to detail that Virgin has achieved in its design for the interior of its Dreamliners extends to the use of mood lighting, which has been installed throughout the cabins to create a relaxing environment for passengers. Lighting changes colour during the flight to help travellers feel calm and peaceful, making it easier to fall asleep and to adjust to changes in time zones.

When passengers board the aircraft, they are greeted with a soft rose-champagne colour, which is intended to help them unwind and prepare for the flight. To maintain a cosy atmosphere, the colour of the lighting changes through 'purple haze' to an 'amber warmth' that mimics the effect of candlelight when meals are served. When it is time for sleep, the lights change again to 'silver moonlight', which aims to reflect the colour of a moonlit sky. The materials used in the seat and in the rest of the cabin are designed to work in harmony with this lighting colour scheme.

"The seat design interacts with the mood-lighting system. That is one way in which we have taken the space we have been given and worked with it to put our brand on it. Often the inspiration comes from outside our industry, from sources in the tangible and digital realm. Customer service and customer segmentation is very important, so we look at the kind of details that different types of customer expect," Lusardi explains.

Sourcing the right kind of hides was not a straightforward task, but the precise nature of Lusardi's specifications has paid off and has helped to create a distinctive luxury feel that is all Virgin.

Leather has been used to create a luxury environment in upper-class seating on Virgin Atlantic flights.
The Central Park entertainment area with custom ball sofa at Virgin Atlantic’s JFK clubhouse.

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