Bicycle manufacturers can purchase carbon fiber tubing for their bike frames from a company like Utah-based Rock West Composites. Manufacturers of sporting goods can purchase carbon fiber products to make everything from water skis to snow ski poles and fishing rods. But carbon fiber sheets for airframes? Absolutely. In fact, a carbon fiber plane is a more comfortable plane according to some of the manufacturers who use it.
The Boeing 787 used by Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines is an ultra-modern aircraft that uses carbon fiber in the airframe. This carbon fiber material comes from another company known as Toray Industries. The Japanese tech company first got into carbon fiber for making longer, stronger fishing rods for river fishing, only to discover that they could manufacture carbon fiber panels for use in aerospace.
Carbon fiber now makes it possible for aerospace companies like Boeing to increase both capacity and fuel efficiency through the use of materials that are lighter than aluminum and steel yet stronger at the same time. But let us talk comfort. That’s where the average Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines customer will really notice the carbon fiber difference.
Humidifiers and Higher Air Pressure
As wonderful as aluminum and steel are for making airframes, both metals have a tendency to corrode over time. To keep maintenance and replacement costs down, aerospace manufacturers have declined to put the same humidifiers found in airplane cockpits into passenger compartments as well. Thus, it is easy for people with dry, sensitive skin to find themselves uncomfortable on long flights.
Well, guess what? Carbon fiber does not corrode. This has allowed Boeing to put humidifiers in the passenger cabin of the 787. Humidifiers generate air that is not as dry – even at high altitudes. More humid air is more comfortable, easier on some people with breathing difficulties, and even warmer.
Carbon fiber airframes also allow for higher air pressure. How does this help? By reducing fatigue and the discomfort caused by popping ears. People who normally experience in-flight ear pain also find they’re more comfortable as a result of the 787’s higher cabin pressure.
Increased Passenger Capacity
If there is any downside to the use of carbon fiber in airframes it is the fact that using a lighter material makes it possible for manufacturers to increase passenger capacity. This can lead to more cramped quarters as a result of designers trying to fit more seats into the same amount of cabin space.
Airline industry experts say it will be interesting to see what manufacturers do with carbon fiber and other composites down the road. If they insist on increasing capacity by reducing seat size and the space between seats, any comfort achieved by way of humidifiers and higher air pressure will be mitigated by passenger quarters that are too tight.
For airlines, it is a question of how important passenger comfort really is. For manufacturers like Boeing, the question is whether to continue the passenger capacity arms race that is creating ever larger planes with each passing decade. It would be nice to know that at some point the need for passenger comfort would at least equal the need to maximize capacity in order to remain profitable.
In the meantime, airline passengers who have the luxury of flying on a Boeing 787 should find the experience a bit more comfortable thanks to the use of carbon fiber airframes. Both Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines says their passengers have noted the difference. They are happier with more humid air and higher cabin pressure.