Airlines invest hundreds of millions, even billions, to upgrade their aircraft cabins and improve the passenger experience they deliver. But in the end, a lot depends on the humble place.
Spare a thought for airplane seat designers forced to curb their creative instincts. They do their best to make the hours spent in the confined space of a flying metal tube as enjoyable as possible, but ultimately the industry has to balance different and conflicting interests and requirements.
After the technical and physical realities of the aircraft cabin, the stringent requirements of regulators, and the financial and operational demands of margin-strapped airlines. What is left for the passengers’ needs?
“You need to have someone who champions the passenger experience,” said Anthony Harcup, Senior Director of Airline Experience at Teague, a Seattle-based design firm with extensive experience working for the airline and transportation industries. , including projects for Boeing, Air Canada and Oman Air’s Boeing 787 fleet, as well as American Airlines’ upcoming premium cabins (slated to enter service in 2024).
Backing those words with action, Teague showcased one of his most groundbreaking designs at last year’s Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg.
The ELEVATE seat concept, developed together with NORDAM, a cabin interior manufacturer, uses multiple attachment points throughout the cabin to equip narrowbody aircraft with large “floating” compartments that provide passengers with the kind of private spaces most typical of premium cabins on widebody aircraft.
This concept also addresses one of the main talking points in this segment of the industry right now: how to rethink the passenger experience as single-aisle and narrowbody aircraft fly ever longer segments.
“The decision to move to small corps was not driven by passenger experience concerns, but due to other operational and financial concerns,” Harcup explained.
Victor Carlioz and Matt Cleary, founders of ACLA, a Los Angeles-area-based boutique design studio that specializes in aircraft interiors, agree: “Those planes weren’t necessarily designed for those missions, and they come with a new set of challenges. It’s not just about seating, but also thinking about things like the availability of kitchens and toilets, for example.”
This need is expected to become more pressing as long-range narrowbodies, such as the A321XLR, also enter service in the coming years.
There is a great distance between a great looking rendering and a fully certified product, let alone one actively ordered by airlines.
Harcup admitted that while some airlines have expressed interest in the idea, the chance of concepts like the ELEVATE cabin becoming a reality onboard airliners is slim in the foreseeable future, but this is expected in the industry.
“It’s like making a statement that lets people see the potential in a certain approach,” he explained.
It is an assessment shared by Luca Vetica, managing director of Aviointeriors, an Italian company that designs and manufactures aircraft seats.
At the latest edition of the Hamburg fair, Aviointeriors presented not just one, but three captivating concepts.
One of these is the Fabryseat, an incredibly lightweight economy class seat that has been stripped down to the bare minimum. Its name, in fact, alludes to the fact that it is essentially a piece of fabric that covers the structure of the seat.
The other two are the Heric (which is short for Heringbone in Cruise) and the DoDo (for the “DoubleDouble” seat), which have flex elements that allow economy class seats to be “upgraded” to premium seats depending on of the question.
However, the start of series production of these concepts is not foreseen for now. This is not unlike what happens in the fashion world, where designers present their most amazing ideas at trade shows even though they know perfectly well that they are unlikely to make it to the high street as they are.
“Disruptive concepts help jump-start conversations between airlines and designers, and some of them come to market, usually in the higher segments, but the change is mostly incremental,” explained Carlioz and Cleary, of ACLA.
These concepts help steer the conversation around the major issues affecting the industry, one of which is sustainability.
In the world of aircraft seats, sustainability is a factor in the choice of materials and in the ability of designers and engineers to deliver weight savings that help reduce fuel consumption, while also using sustainable materials.
“Perfection is when there’s nothing left to take away,” said Chris Brady, a longtime industry veteran, former CEO of Acro Seating and founder of Unum, an aircraft seating startup.
Brady found that, in an industry where there are only a handful of players, smaller airlines haven’t always adequately addressed their concerns.
Unum’s business class seat, currently undergoing certification, is designed to offer a premium experience while remaining simple in design and structure. The startup has pared the business-class product down to its most essential elements to reduce environmental impact. “After all, space is what passengers are looking for, you don’t need that much space,” Brady explained.
The company is also highlighting its Made in Britain credentials at a time when long supply chains come under increasing scrutiny, both due to their environmental footprint and their fragility compared to remote events.
Interestingly, weight savings are also one of the strengths of the Chaise Longue Economy Seat, a two-level stacked seat concept developed by Spanish entrepreneur Alejandro Nuñez Vicente.
While it may seem cumbersome, each unit of the Chaise Longue Economy Seat replaces two rows and the corresponding overhead bin in the center area of a widebody aircraft. By stacking the seats on different levels, it optimizes space to give economy class passengers more legroom.
This concept, which was also nominated for one of the prestigious Crystal Cabin awards, has since attracted the interest of a few private venture capitalists who have helped Nuñez Vicente refine the concept and set up a business to develop it further and start the path to certification.
Another concept that explores the vertical dimension to gain passenger space is the Zephyr seat, which aims to bring the comfort of reclining seats to the economy class cabin. Though it garnered some public interest and backing from some major Silicon Valley investors, its founder Jeffrey O’Neill put the project on hold due to difficulties getting airlines to commit to such a disruptive concept.
Perhaps the closest you’ll come to seeing this type of accommodation stacked aboard an aircraft is Air New Zealand’s SkyNest, which is essentially a bunk bed that economy and premium economy class passengers will be able to rent by the hour. SkyNest is expected to be deployed by the Kiwi airline on its Boeing 787 fleet as early as 2024.
The industry is conservative, even if some operators recognize the originality and genius of some projects, nobody wants to be the first. Incremental iterations of an existing product are generally preferred over more disruptive, but also riskier, changes.
There is also one element to consider and that is consistency across the product line, not only when it comes to the cabin itself, but also how a given seat concept fits into the airline’s commercial strategy and distribution channels. existing.
“Technical and certification challenges can be easier to solve than those related to commercialization of the product. If you have a great new seat concept, but you’re the only one with it, there’s no effective way for GDS or other travel distributors to market it, it’s a really hard sell. It’s a product consistency issue,” Brady explained.
The coming of age, in recent years, of the concept of Premium Economy is an example of this.
“The premium economy is currently a major growth driver. It was conceived in the 90s, but it took about 30 years for it to become mainstream. For the concept to take off, you needed a large enough point-to-point market, something like, say, from London to New York,” Brady continued. “It’s only in the last few years that all the major carriers have added it. Why? Because it was difficult to fit into homogeneous paths in terms of product and the distributors didn’t know how to sell it”.
Angus Baigent, of Hamburg Aviation, the organization that runs the annual Crystal Cabin Awards, honoring innovators in the aircraft cabin space, highlights some recent seat designs which, while remaining within the industry orthodoxy, have introduced some notable innovative elements.
Such is the case of Finnair’s AirLounge, a business class seat designed by Collins that made headlines because it doesn’t recline and yet was widely praised for its comfort and spaciousness.
“When you try it on, you notice the space it offers and the sense of coziness, very much in line with the Nordic concept of ‘hygge,'” Baigent explained.
Another area where designers are making great strides is to provide better options for passengers with limited mobility.
In this regard, Baigent cited two recent concepts, the Fly Your Wheels Suite concept, the result of a collaboration between the National Institute for Aviation Research at Wichita State University and Collins Aerospace and Air 4 All, a system that allows chair users wheel to attach it to a normal aircraft seat. The latter is a PriestmanGoode design, Flying Disabled and SWS certified. Recent regulatory moves could pave the way for these types of accessibility-enhancing innovations to become standard in the cabin.
Ultimately, the success (or otherwise) of an airline product depends on its ability to deliver as seamless and holistic experience as possible across all travel touchpoints, one that creates an emotional connection between the traveler and the airline. A great responsibility that falls on the shoulders of the humble airplane seat.