AIX 2017: Smart design innovations to make Economy seating more comfortable

This article first appeared on Future Travel Experience (FTE)

While Business Class passengers have become used to full-flat beds, those who travel in Economy have had little to get excited about in recent times. As airlines seek to increase cabin density, many Economy passengers have seen comfort levels at best stagnate, and at worst decrease.

In-flight entertainment developments and the ongoing rollout of onboard Wi-Fi are at least helping to provide welcome distraction, but if shoulders are rubbing and legroom is limited, the Economy Class experience is unlikely to be remembered with fondness.

At the heart of the discussion about Economy Class comfort is the seat itself. Surely, if passengers have a comfortable seat, they will have a more enjoyable flight. With this simple premise in mind, FTE at the recent Aircraft Interiors Expo 2017 in Hamburg spoke to a number of aircraft seat designers and manufacturers to learn about their efforts to increase comfort across the board.

Wider Middle Seat
For example, recently we have seen several initiatives that aim to increase the popularity of the dreaded middle seat. Bombardier’s C Series aircraft (currently operated by SWISS and airBaltic) features a 3-2 configuration, with a slightly wider middle seat (19 inch vs 18.5 inches for the window and aisle seats).

Patrick Baudis, VP Marketing Bombardier Commercial Aircraft explained that feedback from airlines and passengers so far has been positive. “The wider seats are a big element that pleases the passengers. With wider seats, you can turn, you can move your legs, and that compensates for pitch to a certain extent.”

Acro Series 6
In Hamburg, Acro and Air New Zealand unveiled a new Economy Class seat for the airline’s A320 and A321neo fleet.

Alan McInnes, SVP Sales, Acro Aircraft Seating, described to FTE how the Acro Series 6 seat was developed closely with Air New Zealand. The final design features a middle seat that is three centimetres (1.18 inches) wider than Air NZ’s current Airbus seats, and window and aisle seats that are one centimetre (0.39 inches) wider.

The design also features a new seat cover developed in conjunction with New Zealand-based Flight Interiors, while the curved seatback has been designed by Acro to enhance ergonomics.

Molon Labe ‘Side-Slip Seat’
Some companies are really pushing the boundaries of ‘blue sky thinking’. One such company is Molon Labe Seating, which showed FTE the innovative ‘Side-slip Seat’, which has been designed to speed up the boarding process and to offer increased living space in Economy.

When not in use, the aisle seat slides over the middle seat to increase aisle space. The staggered design of the armrest means all passengers feel like they have a dedicated armrest, while the concept allows two inches of width to be added to the middle seat, which airlines can upsell if they wish.

Headrest Innovation
Design agency Tangerine teamed up with fellow Irish companies Bradfor, IPC Mouldings and Magnesium Elektron to create the POISE concept, which set out to rethink the structure of the Economy Class seat in order to create extra legroom for every passenger.

The concept seat also features extended headrest wings and a magnetic meal tray. Impressively, the concept was conceived, designed and developed in just eight weeks.

When quizzed by FTE on whether he sees a desire among airlines to improve the Economy experience, Martin Darbyshire, CEO of tangerine, said: “The more responsible airlines do care about it.” However, he admitted that convincing airlines to deliver positive change can be difficult due to the “tremendous commercial pressure” that carriers are often under.

He said airlines shouldn’t focus on “frilly” ideas, but instead on more “common sense” opportunities that can make a real difference. One such example is the six-way headrest that tangerine designed for Cathay Pacific’s A350s, which offers extra neck support for economy class passengers.

Reconfigurable Cabin
Airbus, Recaro and THK provide another example of how collaboration can benefit passenger comfort. The Smart Cabin Reconfiguration concept, making use of Recaro’s Flex Seat, is a sliding seat concept that allows for seat pitch to be significantly increased in a matter of seconds.

If an aircraft is flying at less than 100 percent capacity, the seat rows that aren’t being used can be quickly folded up and the row in front can be moved backwards to increase legroom.

“The idea of the reconfigurable cabin came up years ago,” Dr. Mark Hiller, Recaro’s CEO, told FTE. “Together with Airbus we thought about how we can really give the cabin more flexibility. We worked together with Airbus to figure out what can we do on the seat tracks, what can we do with the seats, and (whether we can create a concept) which is adjustable in less than a minute. This really gives airlines completely new opportunities.”

Comfort vs Cost
After three days around the exhibition in Hamburg, it is clear that many OEMs and industry vendors are indeed innovating in an effort to enhance passenger comfort, but the reality is that ambition can be somewhat tempered by airlines’ business models.

As Bombardier’s Baudis said: “The dilemma for airlines is the following: they need to become extremely efficient in Economy Class because passengers want comfort, but the same passengers will also select a flight based on a USD10 difference on the Internet.”

While many airlines can rightly be accused of not doing enough to improve comfort levels in Economy Class, aircraft seat designers and manufacturers can certainly not be accused of ignoring the issue. The challenge they face, however, is to convince the airlines, their own customers, to prioritise comfort over density, or at least to find an acceptable balance. Of course, this is easier said than done in a low-margin industry like air transport.

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