CompositesWorld conference emphasizes complexities of composite aircraft interiors

The High-Performance Composites For Aircraft Interiors conference, held Sept. 25-26 in Seattle, Wash., USA, focused on fire and smoke toxicity, increased use of carbon fiber composites and weight vs. profitability issues.

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At the recent CompositesWorld High-Performance Composites For Aircraft Interiors conference, held Sept. 25-26 at the Washington State Convention Center in Seattle, Wash., USA, the focus was on finding ways to get more composites inside the aircraft.

Today, the mass of interior structures and components are equivalent to about 40 to 50 percent of an airframe’s mass, according to presenter Chris Red, principal at Composites Forecasts and Consulting (Mesa, Ariz.). In the last generation of aircraft, composite interiors accounted for approximately 20 to 25 percent of the total tonnage of aircraft weight. Over the next 10 years, Red estimates that composites could penetrate 30 to 40 percent of interiors tonnage. And with 24,000 major refurbishments, more than 24,000 substantive upgrades and more than 16,000 new aircraft deliveries expected over the next decade, the interiors market (by volume) could see growth of 45 to 50 percent during this time.

Phenolic-based composites are expected to remain the big player in interiors, although thermoplastic-based formulations, which offer favorable FST (fire and smoke toxicity) properties, could see growth in the near future. Higher airframe carbon fiber composites content is reportedly leading to more carbon fiber composites within the cabin.

Stringent FST standards make the certification process for interior panels and components highly complicated. In fact, flammability took center stage in several presentations, with discussions on new flammability test methods and advancements in fire retardant materials and coatings — including a potentially ground-breaking FR coating being developed by Texas A&M University (College Station, Texas).

Yet, even with proper FST certification, getting specified for an interior application can be tricky. According to presenter Bill Archer, president and CEO of Landmark Aerospace (Kennesaw, Ga.), airlines are looking for innovation at low risk, lighter weight without the sacrifice of durability, and high-quality at low cost. And for the airlines, the primary concern is about the short-term effect on revenue, he explained.

Right now and for the near future, the battlefield is clearly in business class, according to Archer. “Getting the loyalty of a business class customer is important, and there’s a lot of effort being put on this front,” he reported. "There’s been a lot of money spent on business class and there’s going to be a lot more money spent in this area." He believes composites will be critical to the future of airline design.