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This crazy airliner concept lets airlines easily mix and match seating configurations

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Most people don’t think about the process of assembling the interior of an aircraft when they’re flying. Instead, passengers focus on more immediate concerns like peanuts and tight legroom. But installing the inside of an aircraft is hugely important for airlines: they must make decisions about balancing that legroom with the number of seats, as well as making sufficient room for things like bathrooms and galleys.

Because installing the aircraft interior is such a labor-intensive (and highly regulated) process, even simple changes can be major undertakings. Most airlines only adjust their cabins every seven to 10 years, and even then the changes are generally minimal and limited to new seats or entertainment systems and the like. And this is a problem.

Plane interiors set up for domestic travel might not be equipped to fly over water, or to international destinations, even when the planes themselves might be perfectly capable of making the journey. This lack of space greatly limits the flexibility airlines have when planning and swapping aircraft between flight routes.

But what if an airline could mix and match aircraft interiors like Lego pieces? Transoceanic flights are often equipped with an sleeping accommodations for first-class passengers and large galleys for serving food. Imagine if those could be quickly replaced with an all-coach seating experience for a quick hour-long shuttle flight?

That’s what Airbus hopes to make a reality with Transpose, a development from A3, the advanced projects and partnerships division of Airbus located in Silicon Valley. The idea is to create a modular commercial aircraft cabin system that would fill freight aircraft (which routinely are emptied and refilled with standardized cargo containers) with fixed-size cabin compartments that can be reconfigured very quickly.

Instead of redesigning new aircraft, Transpose looks to repurpose existing planes to make them more flexible. The vision is a little crazy: Transpose thinks airlines could install sections filled with exercise bikes to help flyers stay active on long flights, or a cafe from a major coffee chain, or perhaps a kid-safe play area. I’m not sure if airlines will jump on board with all these amenities when they could just stuff more seats in instead. But could be a compelling vision for both passengers and airlines.

“This is an interesting concept,” said a Delta spokesperson when asked about Transpose. “We’ll continue to discuss what the long-term future of aircraft cabins could be with our valued partner Airbus and others.”

Delta has recently announced that it’s going to be retrofitting it’s long-haul aircraft with a new Delta One business class offering that includes individual suites, as well as a new Premium Select class that fits between coach and business on international flights. Retrofitting all its cabins will be a long and expensive proposition, one that could be made cheaper by a modular system like Transpose.

Airbus hopes to have Transpose-enabled aircraft in operation “within a few years,” which it calls ambitious but “completely achievable.” Transpose project executive Jason Chua asks airlines, manufacturers, brands, and passionate passengers to reach out and “collaborate on changing the way we fly.”

No word on how Transpose would affect those peanuts, though.

The better way to board an airplane