By Mark Kirby | Edited by Filip Lau
Lufthansa is best known as an airline: the largest carrier in Europe, with more than 110,000 employees, it serves hundreds of destinations and millions of passengers each year. But even when you’re not on a Lufthansa-branded flight, chances are that some Lufthansa-designed systems—from aviation IT to maintenance to entertainment, even catering—are keeping you safe and comfortable in the air. Through its various operations, the company has long been a leader in aviation innovation, including of passenger-focused innovations such as in-flight entertainment, code shares, and customer loyalty programs. When it comes to the inside of the cabin, one group of Lufthansa Group engineers, the Innovation Business Unit, which is part of Lufthansa Technik AG, bears the brunt of responsibility for envisioning and building the passenger experience of tomorrow. We caught up with Andrew Muirhead, Lufthansa Technik’s director of innovation, to talk about his unit’s role in satisfying the innovation needs of the global airline business, and what we might expect our flights to be like in the years ahead.
ReD: Your job title sounds fantastic: Director of Innovation. How did it come to be that Lufthansa Technik has a division focused solely on innovation?
Andrew Muirhead: We started the Business Unit back in 2003. Back then, I was working in engineering, and we used to install other companies’ in-flight entertainment and cabin management systems. We were always the last people on the aircraft. Half the time, the systems we were installing didn’t work, and they’d have come from far away, so it was always us who were the unlucky ones working the night shift. This went on for years. And eventually we got to the point where we said, “We reckon we could do a better job with this.” So a colleague and I sat down to put a business case together to start a development and manufacturing outfit to go and do exactly that. We got approval, starting with seven people, and set up a development studio inside an old barrack here at Lufthansa Technik that no one had used for years. What started out as a little idea on paper has ended up becoming a €20 million operation with a staff of over seventy.
ReD: How has the unit evolved over the years?
AM: We started out doing everything from seating products to lighting products to security products to custom components for commercial airlines—but today our core areas are cabin management and in-flight entertainment systems. When you have a start-up organization, you have that kind of garage mode where you have a handful of people and everyone does a little bit of everything. You have that real pioneering spirit. But then you start to grow and you need to put more processes in place, add more people, and I think we got to the point where we were a pretty well-oiled, well-functioning organization. Most of the products have done really well, and the Business Unit is performing very well, so no one is complaining about it. But like anything, when you put an innovative product to market, you have some gold mines and you have some disasters. If you’re not prepared to have that, if you’re not prepared to take risks, you can hardly call yourself innovative.
ReD: It seems like a culture of innovation is a big part of what the Lufthansa Group is known for—leading the way in areas like connectivity.
AM: That’s right. Lufthansa Technik was first company in the industry to get wireless certified in commercial aviation. That’s certainly an area where we’ve been pioneering and continue to do so. We’re actually working now on a certification for the latest wifi standard. It’s an area that we’re very focused on in terms of our product development.
ReD: What do you see as the next major innovation that will change how passengers think of flying?
AM: I’m very convinced that if you look at the rapid rate of change in the last couple of years in terms of smart electronic devices and the explosion in the usage of these devices, that’s going to have a bigger impact in the cabin than any other trend out there. There are some other things going on in the cabin, but in terms of the actual passenger experience, the biggest impact will come from the use of personal devices and the expectations that the passenger brings when they come onto the aircraft of how they, with their own devices, can interact with their surroundings. That is something that today is not available to them but certainly for us will be a big focus. I think the first companies that get out there with the best solutions are going to be the ones enjoying the best business.
ReD: In terms of what that means for the conventional in-flight experience, what happens to the old screens when most passengers have their own smart devices?
AM: I don’t think that those old screens are going to go away in a hurry. I think that it will transition so that there’s a stronger focus on passenger devices. It’s still going to take a long time though until every single person in the cabin, or at least the great majority of economy-class passengers, are carrying a smart device. Today, you’re looking at maybe 10-20 percent. It’s still going to take a few years until it’s as standard as having a mobile phone. And you’re still going to have to entertain the person who doesn’t have them. So I think it’s going to be a gradual transition, particularly in economy where it’s so lacking in space and you really need to keep people entertained. You’ll see the transition away from traditional in-flight entertainment first in short-haul and low-cost, where it’ll happen fairly rapidly. That’s where the market will move fastest. For long-haul, you’ll see an augmentation of the two. You’ll see the existing the built-in systems being augmented in a way where you can also use your own device. Then as those devices proliferate in the market, some of the airlines will get a bit more gutsy about it and start removing equipment from the aircraft. But it’ll be a number of years before that happens.
ReD: Where does the airline continue to add value to entertainment if the passengers have access to the whole web through their device?
AM: Well, the airlines will still have access to early-window content and it’s highly unlikely that the consumer will have access to that over the web. There’s still going to be that piece where the airline is providing media content to the passenger between the time that it’s out in the cinema and the time it gets to DVD. There’s still a role that airlines will play in providing that type of experience.
ReD: Beyond entertainment, how else will personal devices change the experience as a passenger?
AM: Today the in-flight interaction between passenger and airline is an isolated interaction. And one of the things that will be different in the future is that pre-, in-, and post-flight will become a lot more seamless. Because passengers will be on their devices, you’ll be able to start offering services that are actually linked to each other from the time before you come on the aircraft until you’re actually sitting on the plane.
ReD: So that could mean ordering your food, your movies, everything for your flight before it actually begins?
AM: Exactly. That’s an area where I see a big transition happening. That’s a big area of focus for us.
Andrew Muirhead on working with ReD Associates