SWISS operates one of Europe’s most advanced aircraft fleets, with an average aircraft age of just 9.5 years. On its long haul network, the ten Boeing 777s, with their new cabin product, have largely replaced its Airbus A340-300 fleet over the past three years. The five A340-300s that remain in service are now being equipped with totally new and modernized cabins. The work is being performed at Elbe Flugzeugwerke in Dresden, Germany.
A cabin refurbishment of this kind takes five to six weeks per aircraft. It’s a complex interplay involving various participants. From the SWISS side, up to eight personnel have been temporarily transferred to Dresden, where the work is being carried out. These people are largely responsible for the project’s management and coordination, for monitoring progress and for helping to rectify any problems that arise. Elbe Flugzeugwerke has around 100 employees assigned to the program, from aircraft engineers and electronics technicians through to cabin interior specialists. All these people are further supplemented by representatives from Airbus, the seat manufacturers and the suppliers of the inflight entertainment system and Internet connectivity aloft. The work is performed around the clock, often in three shifts and on weekends, to ensure that the tight timetable is observed.
The refurbishment is conducted in a series of work phases that are closely coordinated. The first step is to gut the aircraft completely: All the seats, galleys and toilets are removed, along with the baggage bins and the internal paneling. This reveals all the aircraft’s air-conditioning and ventilation ducts and all the electrical wiring above the ceiling, beneath the floor and along the sides. And the second step is then to replace all this, a process that entails laying twelve kilometres of new cables.
While this electrical work is proceeding on board, the new cabin furnishings are readied in the large aircraft hangar. Some of these – such as the First Class seats – are so voluminous that they have to be assembled on-site. Once all the new wiring has been laid and tested, work can begin on installing the new seats, galleys and toilets. The ceiling and wall panelling are also refitted, and the cabin floor carpets are laid. There is one more task, though, before the newly refurbished A340-300 can return to SWISS service. During a test flight, the new cabin interior is put fully through its paces in both normal and extreme flying conditions to ensure that everything works faultlessly. SWISS is investing some 100 million Swiss francs in the cabin refurbishment of its five-aircraft Airbus A340-300 fleet.
“There hasn’t been a single cabin item that we haven’t touched.”
Christoph, this must be one of SWISS’s more complex projects of the past few years. When has it started?
We began with the project’s definition and planning in summer 2016. I joined the project team in February 2017. And the work on refurbishing our first aircraft started last December.
What would you say are the biggest challenges in a refurbishment like this?
Pretty much everything! (laughs) Every airline has its own preferences for its aircraft cabin design, from the seat configuration to the seats themselves, the galleys and the colours of the curtains and the wall panels. This means that it takes a very long time to develop each individual element – like a seat, for example. And with our A340-300 project, there hasn’t been a single cabin item that we haven’t touched, changed, moved or replaced.
Each refurbished aircraft is subjected to a series of comprehensive tests before it is returned to service. What do these involve?
All the new seats have all their functions tested. And then all the combinations of materials that we’ve used on them are subjected to a fire test. After that come the loading tests, where the seat is exposed to sizeable forces from various angles. And finally, just like a car crash test, we take a set of seats and “run it into a wall” to ensure that all the elements which are built into it remain in place. Once they have been installed on the aircraft, all the seats are then tested again to make sure that they are fully functioning exactly as they should be.
Why is all this work being done in Dresden?
We had originally planned to have these refurbishments performed at Sabena Technics in Bordeaux. But then, owing to delivery delays – primarily of our new First Class seats – we had to find a new partner for this work at short notice. Fortunately, Elbe Flugzeugwerke of Dresden was able to offer us the capacities we needed. And our choice of Dresden also has the added advantage that it’s served by two SWISS flights a day, which has been a great help to us, given the complex materials logistics involved.
What is new in the A340-300 cabin?
- Economy Class seat with innovative new honeycomb cushion
- Semi-foldable table for greater legroom
- Faster and stable inflight entertainment system
- Connectivity (WLAN on board)
- New First Class seats (similar to the Boeing 777) and Business Class seats (as in the Boeing 777)
- LED mood lighting in all seating classes
- New galleys in all seating classes
With these innovations, SWISS will now offer its customers an advanced and up-to-date cabin product throughout its long-haul aircraft fleet.
Text & Photos: Reto Hoffmann