Courtesy Asiana Airlines
A century ago, airline seating consisted of wicker chairs nailed to the cabin floor. Ever since, the industry has been struggling with the often conflicting goals of making customers comfortable and making a profit. Lately, the latter objective seems to be winning out, as new “slimline” seats, using lightweight materials to replace bulky frames, give airlines carte blanche to cram more coach flyers into the same space. And the gap between the haves and have-nots is widening as lines such as Emirates and Etihad add luxurious suites for those in the pointy end of the plane. (Asiana’s first-class Oz suites, pictured, boast beds that are seven-feet long.)
So how will this paradox play out in air travel’s next century? Since every bit of extra weight in the cabin adds many zeros to the airlines’ fuel tab, aircraft interiors will have to make clever use of scarce real estate. Several leading designers have come out with cutting-edge prototypes that eke out some precious space, or at least the illusion of it:
Skycouches or convertible seats/beds: Air New Zealand pioneered this innovative design that converts a row of three coach seats into a futon-like bed fit for one person, or two who know each other really well (hence the nickname “cuddle class”).
Caterpillar convertible: These banks of seats, from Hong Kong-based Paperclip Design, can be configured in an economy layout and quickly reshaped into a business class layout with full beds and a table separating seats (which, in economy configuration, is pulled up to make a third middle seat).
Reverse Herringbone design: This is mainly for business class, where flat beds are now de rigueur. By arranging the seats in a reverse layout, alternating head and toe, there’s more room for all, in a clever design from French firm Zodiac Aerospace and JPA Design.
Two-tiered armrest: Also from Paperclip, this adjustable armrest allows seatmates to coexist without knocking elbows by setting the armrest at slightly different heights.
Morph seat: What if a seat could be adjusted for size—your size? British firm Seymourpowell has come out with a coach version of those business class chairs with dozens of levels and buttons, allowing customers to adjust the height and depth of the seat pan. The design works by replacing traditional foam seat pads with a single strip of fabric that wraps around the frame holding three seats. The single seatback remains stationary and individual seats recline and armrests adjust within the confines. Airlines could shift the layout around according to a flyer’s desire to buy more space, “blurring the boundaries between the classes,” the firm promises.
Face-to-face layout: This one—also from French design firm Zodiac—solves the problem of jabbing elbows and playing kneesies with your seatmate. The middle seat would be flipped around, so it faces the window and aisle passengers; all would get more shoulder and leg room within the same space.
Super light: The race to lighten the load—within safety boundaries, of course—is on, especially if oil prices continue to rise. One update from designer Recaro would involve removing bulky video screens and entertainment gizmos in favor of a holder for an iPad or other personal electronic device; with a power supply, it could save space and money. Virgin Atlantic has already redesigned tray tables to shed weight, a move that it claims will cut millions from its expense tab in the next ten years. Another company called Expliseat has produced a prototype of what may be the lightest coach seat ever; at 4 kilos, or around 8 pounds, it’s made entirely of titanium. It is still awaiting approval from the European Safety Agency and other regulatory bodies.
Standing-room seats? Safety ultimately must drive whatever changes come about; emergency seats must be able to withstand 16 Gs of force and rows must be wide enough to allow easy escape. So that might rule out one of the most far-out, and feared, “innovations” to be discussed in recent years: the notorious “standing room” seat, a sort of upright pallet to which passengers would be strapped. But aside from Ryanair, few airlines have expressed interest.
Source: Conde Nast Traveler