Airbus Thinks Putting Passengers in Shipping Containers Would Help Airlines Board Faster

Wired reports on a new patent that Airbus filed for in 2013 and which was approved this week: “…Airbus [is] reconsidering the boarding process with an idea to turn aircraft cabins into what amount to shipping containers.”

Airbus proposes “a removable cabin module, comprising a floor, an upper aircraft fuselage portion connected to the floor, and a first and a second end wall, wherein the first and second end walls, the floor and the upper aircraft fuselage portion form a cabin for transport of passengers, luggage, freight or combinations thereof.”

Passengers would board a module at the gate. Everyone sits down. The module would be lowered into the plane once it arrives.

Then when the plane makes it to its destination, the cabin module would be removed and swapped out for new passengers in their own module. And the plane goes on its way.

Airlines lose almost as much from slower boarding as they make in checked bag fees, ultimately netting mostly the tax savings since bag fees aren’t subject to the 7.5% excise tax on domestic airfares that applies to tickets themselves. This is big business, especially if airlines could recoup as much as $700 million a year each.

Of course, no aircraft has been designed to support this. And no airport has the infrastructure for it either. You’d need larger spacing between gates most likely, at the very least, in addition to as-yet-undesigned equipment.

If it did come to pass, there’s no reason to believe it would be any less comfortable for passengers than what we have today.

My prediction is this idea will be a total dud: It would lengthen boarding and deplaning times for passengers — and thus increase total travel time — even as it reduces the time it takes to swap out passengers for a given aircraft. Longer total travel times mean air travel is less desirable than other methods of transportation for short distances. Longer travel times mean less productivity, so it will be unpopular with an airline’s most lucrative business travelers. Corporate travel buyers will push back. It would shift some high yield customers to fly private.

It’s an engineering solution to a human problem, and ultimately airlines will succeed by providing more value to customers rather than becoming less convenient for customers. Airlines have re-banked their hubs because — even though it’s more expensive for airlines — it wins business by making connections more convenient and wasting less of passengers time.

So it’s an ingenious idea whose time likely won’t ever come.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. To me, this is an ideal solution. I don’t see a single downside to this, other than the infrastructure changes that would be required. I disagree that it would lengthen boarding and deplaning times for passengers, since passengers could be ‘boarded’ before the ‘airframe’ even arrives. I always wonder why we are asked to arrive at the gate so early, when we spend the next 45 minutes just sitting there, waiting for the crew to get the plane ready.

    This solution is basically treating the aircraft as more of an ‘airframe’, and the passenger compartment as essentially the same as a train compartment. In this model, with no jetbridge, there’s no reason to have just one door. Each row could have its own door, making ingress/egress that much faster. Since passengers seem to want to carry their baggage with them, this would again be more like the train-travel model: carry your bags into your compartment with you.
    Taking it even further along the train/plane convergence: why not board your ‘compartment’ in the city-center, and then have a train track take the ‘compartment’ out to where the ‘airframes’ are landing/taking-off?
    Yes, rather ‘pie-in-the-sky’ (or pie-on-the-ground?), but I still see this as a very good ‘engineering’ solution to many issues of modern airplane travel.
    Just think of the added security when there is absolutely no access between the passenger compartment and the cockpit.

  2. Couple of thoughts: you’d need fewer gates, since there would be no idle time waiting for aircraft to arrive/being towed. Also, even if total travel time increased, wouldn’t it be interesting to LCCs? It’s not like those that fly Spirit are looking for convenience.
    A last thought: wouldn’t it make shorter flights cheaper? If you reduce the fixed cost of having an aircraft (due to higher utilization), some short flights could become economically feasible.

  3. Terrible idea (and just who comes up with these dud ideas, qand how much are they being paid? I want that job!)

    Anyway, structural integrity of the aircraft would be dangerously compromised.

  4. @Bob S – i think the missing piece here is the time to actually swap the containers after passengers have boarded them and before they disembark.. that’s more time.

  5. I may be misremembering, but I think UPS tried this with their cargo planes that were idle on weekends 20 years ago.

  6. It shouldn’t take any more time that it does to attach a jetbridge today. Think ‘pipelining’. The terminal is elevated above a taxiway, and there are two gate-areas. The just-landed plane taxis under the first gate-area, where the compartment is lifted up into the terminal for passengers to disembark (from multiple doors). Meanwhile, the ‘airframe’ moves forward to position under gate-area two, where the already-loaded compartment is lowered and secured onto the airframe. The now-loaded/refueled airframe then taxis forward again (no push-backs needed) to head to the runway. (ie: the airframe leaves with a new compartment, not the same one it arrived with, they are interchangeable and rather cheap compared to the airframe)
    It’s more-or-less a ‘drive-thru’ for the airframes.

  7. There does appear to be at least one problem. Some arriving passengers may only be passing through a particular airport. On a traditional flight they would simply stay on the aircraft. In this type of aircraft they would have to disembark the arriving compartment and then board the departing passenger compartment. Also how would their baggage be transferred?

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