The European Plastics Distributors Association (EPDA) says the use of aviation grade plastics will play an “increasingly important role” in the future of aircraft design owing to their ability to both improve fuel efficiency and reduce the environmental impact of passenger flights.
Making aircraft bodies as light as is safely possible is one solution, it says, but using more plastic materials when creating aircraft interiors can also help conserve energy.
EPDA believes that aviation grade plastics will play an increasingly important role in the interiors of both new-build aircraft by the Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM), such as Boeing and Airbus, as well as the periodic makeovers undertaken by the end users, the major airlines, to freshen up their brands.
Replacing traditional materials
Aircraft seats have traditionally used metals and metal composite materials to meet the strict FAA flammability regulations, such as vertical burn, heat release and smoke density tests, for aircraft interiors.
However, plastics companies like Sekisui Polymer Innovations, LLC, which has distributors throughout Europe, has already introduced aviation grade thermoplastic sheet for seats and other aircraft interior components that meets these requirements.
Thanks to moulding and material engineering technologies, EPDA says lightweight thermoplastic sheet can now be used in seat back shells, reducing the weight of a large passenger aircraft by around 150kg compared to metal composite materials, leading to fuel savings and reduced CO2 emissions.
It added that by replacing metal materials with lighter aviation grade plastics that comply with the very strict flammability tests for passenger seating, as well as other aircraft interior components, not only makes economic sense and reduces the environmental impact of each commercial flight, it also provides flexibility for improving the appearance of the cabin.
SEKISUI SPI’s Aviation Market Business Manager, Michael Miler, said: “There is a trend towards plastics for the more complex shapes for fittings and fixtures inside aircraft. Designers are having more influence and are using more complex three-dimensional geometries, which is making seating, especially in business and first class, appear more like the furniture you would see at home or in public spaces. These complex shapes are much easier to replicate in plastic than with metal or composite structures.”
Meeting customer needs
In addition to providing materials that are first and foremost inherently flame retardant to meet the very strict regulatory compliance, EDPA points out there are a multitude of non-regulatory, but very important, customer needs that plastics have to cover on the inside of the cabin.
For example, plastic materials are used throughout the entire cabin of commercial aircraft to make seat parts, such as back shells, tray tables and arm rests, the Passenger Service Units, such as the overhead dials to adjust the airflow and lights, as well as for providing an aesthetic, consistent and durable framework for the cabin’s interior walls.
There are also other factors at play for manufacturing aircraft interiors such as standardisation – repeating patterns, work practices and materials – or customisation to more accurately reflect an end user’s identity. Miler says that plastics can work in both of these scenarios.
He concluded: “In the area of customisation I think the flexibility of plastic materials offer an advantage by giving the airline and its designers the best opportunity to fully explore different colours, textures and patterns, to create the most attractive appearance while always serving a distinct function, such as providing maintainability.”