A commercial flight is no place to run experiments—at least with any scientific rigor. Airplane manufacturers and airlines alike want to try out new cabin designs, seating arrangements and boarding procedures, but testing those ideas on actual passengers at 40,000 feet is prohibitively expensive, potentially dangerous and impossible to control. The National Research Council of Canada is now building a facility in Ottawa that re-creates several aspects of air travel, with a reconfigurable cabin that can faithfully simulate hours-long plane trips. According to Paul Lebbin, project manager for the new Cabin Comfort and Environment Research facility, the studies conducted at the laboratory will “help airlines balance profitability with what the passengers want.” Construction is scheduled to begin this summer, and several experiments are already on the docket.

Jason Lee

CABIN: The lab’s cabin is entirely modular—its seats, windows and storage compartments can all be detached and reconfigured to re-create conditions onboard many types of passenger planes. As such, tests can cater to specific jet models. In-flight noise levels, lighting, air pressure, humidity and airflow can all be simulated.

AIRFLOW: The way air is circulated through most cabins has not changed since the 1980s: air from the engine’s compressors is adjusted for temperature, mixed with recycled and filtered air, and then pumped into the cabin above passengers. The system is noisy and energy-intensive and distributes fresh air unevenly. The lab will test new ways to deliver oxygen-rich air from the floor instead—a setup that reduces strong pumping and therefore uses less energy and is quieter.

WINDOWS: The lab will test windows that can be darkened electronically from a central system that regulates cabin lighting and temperature levels. These glass “microblinds” could also reduce an aircraft’s weight and therefore lower fuel costs.

SEATS: The constant vibration crew members experience during flight can lead to fatigue, neck strain and other health problems. Researchers will compare how well different types of seat cushions dampen vibrations by placing a row of seats on a massive shake table and then measuring the vital signs of people sitting in them.

LUGGAGE: Passengers are increasingly traveling with large carry-on bags because of fees to check luggage. Researchers at the facility will systematically analyze which boarding procedures—by row, zone or seat— best allow passengers to stow bags as quickly as possible.