The woman changing the face of flying

Dr Rachel Ornan-Stone in Boeing's Customer Experience Centre.
Photo of Geoffrey Thomas

Meet Dr Rachelle Ornan-Stone, an industrial designer who's played a big part in improving the comfort of passengers. 

For years aircraft manufacturers have relied on soft furnishings to decorate an aircraft cabin with limited regard for passengers. 

The goal has been on cutting weight for fuel economy rather than making passengers more comfortable.

Now a new type of aircraft consultant holds sway at aerospace giants such as Boeing. Enter Dr Rachelle Ornan-Stone, a design researcher with a PhD in experimental psychology and a masters in industrial design.

Dr Ornan-Stone has worked on the design development of aircraft flight decks, International Space Station onboard processes and systems, space hotel concepts for NASA, and the interior of the upcoming CST-100 Starliner spaceship. She explains that the Boeing 787 with its all-composite fuselage has changed everything at Boeing. 

“Composite structure is stronger and lighter than traditional aluminium and this, combined with the dramatic improvement in fuel economy, allowed Boeing to focus on the passenger as never before,” Dr Ornan-Stone says.

When the 787 was conceived, Boeing brought in design consultancy firm Teague, a long-term partner, and gave it a new brief — to create the ultimate passenger experience.

The use of composites allowed a re-think of design resulting in features such as noticeably larger windows according to Dr Ornan-Stone.

“Boeing now has a product that is significantly different in ways that actually matter. We have research data and in-flight data which shows that passengers will go out of their way to fly on the 787.

“We have amazing beautiful windows and they will be the first thing you notice when you get onboard. They are the widest and tallest and best positioned on any aircraft today,” Dr Ornan-Stone says.

The higher windows allow even passengers in the middle of the cabin to see out, minimising claustrophobia — a major cause of the fear of flying.

And while the windows allow light to flood in, 14 LED lighting scenes set the mood in the cabin — simulating phases of the day — from dawn to sunset.

But there is far more to the 787 than neat windows, explains Dr Ornan-Stone. Noise levels are extremely low — more like a luxury car on the highway.

There are two reasons for this. The engines are quieter and the composite fuselage of the 787 has no seams on the outside to disrupt the airflow — no rivets, no tiny bumps.

Adjustments made to the cabin humidity and altitude have also had major benefits for passengers. In aluminium aircraft, cabin humidity is set at about 2 per cent, says Dr Ornan-Stone, because designers don’t want moisture introduced into an environment, where it can rust. But the 787’s composite cabin won’t rust and the increase in humidity to about 10 per cent makes a significant difference.

On most aircraft the cabin altitude is set to 8000ft which gives some passengers mild altitude sickness.

But the 787 is set to about 6000ft which makes arriving passengers feel far less fatigued.

Boeing made the improvements after putting volunteers through simulated flights in pressurised cabins to gauge the impact of altitude and humidity on the body.

“We kept adjusting the cabin altitude to see at what point altitude sickness symptoms showed,” Dr Ornan-Stone says.

“From zero to 6000ft there were no symptoms but above 6500ft there there was a significant increase.”

She says the removal of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from cabin air was one of the greatest challenges.

Boeing was surprised in the test results that VOCs such as perfume, hair spray and even the alcohol used in the handy wipes passengers use at meal times made passengers feel far more dehydrated by the end of a flight than previously thought.

So, in a world first for commercial aircraft, Boeing has installed a filtration system that removes irritants and odours from the cabin, as well as allergens, bacteria and viruses.

Passengers will also enjoy the benefits of technology which senses turbulence and puts in counter movement of the aircraft’s control surfaces to reduce the impact.

“The result is a 70 per cent reduction in turbulence,” Dr Ornan-Stone says.

The combined effect is such that passengers are choosing to fly the Boeing 787 over other aircraft. It’s a trend Qantas hopes will continue when its new Perth to London Boeing 787 non-stop flight is launched in March, 2018.

Dr Ornan-Stone says Boeing has put enormous effort into understanding the psychology of passengers. She now aims to refine all the advances made in the 787 cabin and apply them to the 777X which will be the world’s longest-range aircraft and capable of non-stop flights such as Perth to Los Angeles.

Picture at top: Dr Rachelle Ornan-Stone. Picture: Boeing

Advances made on the Dreamliner have set a new benchmark. Duration: 05m 46s Seven West Travel Club


Geoffrey was a guest of Boeing and Qantas.


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