In response to requests from airlines to "do something" with the common areas surrounding aircraft entryways, Boeing has designed a prayer space concept that provides a private zone for religious passengers to practice their beliefs without the need to remove rows of seats.

Some airlines from predominantly Muslim regions have provided in-flight prayer rooms on their widebody aircraft for many years, but this has traditionally come at the expense of several rows of seats.

For instance, Saudi Arabian Airlines advertizes its onboard prayer rooms as a key selling point to its passengers, and Abu Dhabi's Etihad Airways has installed prayer spaces on its Airbus A380 aircraft.

"On our A380 fleet, we have prayer areas which can be curtained off for privacy and are equipped with a real-time electronic Qibla-finder showing the exact direction of Mecca based on the aircraft’s geographical position. Praying mats are available on all flights," says Etihad.

Similarly, Dubai-based Emirates says it has "larger areas in the aircraft that can be secluded for our customers who want to pray, and our crew will provide the necessary assistance required."

But by curtaining off areas surrounding the entryways on twin-aisle aircraft and building a foldable foot-washing tray into the wall of the lavatory, Boeing believes it has come up with a solution that will enable airlines to provide observant Muslim passengers with the facilities to prepare for and practice their prayers during flight in a way that does not result in the loss of revenue associated with removing seats.

"We get requests from airlines consistently to do something with the common areas, so this [prayer space concept] didn't come up out of nowhere. We've been considering what we can do with entryways for some time," James Fullerton, a Boeing design engineer responsible for developing cabin interior concepts, tells Aviation Week.

The idea behind the concept is that a series of customized curtain tracks would be installed around the entryway area on a widebody jet. The space could be deployed in the door one entryway of a twin-aisle aircraft or "on both sides of door two," says Fullerton.

While there is an option to provide "pocket doors or panels" instead of curtains, he says that Boeing is "not necessarily going there as an OEM, as it's more challenging."

When the aircraft reaches cruising altitude, passengers who wish to fulfil their religious obligations can approach a flight attendant and ask for the prayer space to be deployed.

"Assuming it's not turbulent or in the middle of meal service, the flight attendant would go and set the custom lighting scene for that area and close the curtains to create a semi-private space. There would be a light to show that the prayer space is occupied," says Fullerton, adding that studies have shown the space could accommodate two passengers at a time.

After interviewing a number of observant Muslims, Boeing discovered that one of the biggest challenges for passengers wishing to perform an in-flight prayer ritual is finding a comfortable way to wash their feet.

"In many cases, there were anecdotal stories of passengers sticking their feet in the sink," says Fullerton. "So we came up with a relatively lightweight and easy way to install a tray that folds out over the toilet, which can be plumbed or not, so the water can drain away. This is a simple provision in the lavatory wall and it can be linefit very easily."

Boeing is hoping the concept will have "universal appeal" to airlines from across the world that want to meet the needs of their Muslim passengers but do not want to sacrifice revenue-generating seats to install a "full-blown prayer room."

"We've had conversations with airlines that would like to have something but can't handle losing rows of seats. There are a whole bunch of airlines that need something in between," says Fullerton.

According to Muslim travel specialist CrescentRating, which publishes an annual Global Muslim Travel Index in association with credit card company Mastercard, the Muslim travel market is "one of the most lucrative and rapidly growing market segments in the travel industry," which perhaps explains why airlines are increasingly keen to cater to the needs of Muslim passengers.

In its latest index, released in May 2017, CrescentRating projected that the number of Muslim international travelers would grow to 156 million a year by 2020, with travel expenditure from this segment expected to reach $220 billion. 

Aside from the prayer space concept, Boeing has also considered alternative uses for common areas. These include offering a separate area for parents traveling with infants to use for nursing or comforting an upset child, or for passengers wishing to send a confidential email away from the eyes of other passengers.

Boeing has had "preliminary conversations with airline customers" about its ideas, and Fullerton says it is "way past the concept stage and firmly in the development stage."

"If everything goes well, we could see something on an airplane within 24 months," he adds.