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Published: 02/09/2014 - Filed under: Home » Archive » 2014 » September 2014 » Special Reports »

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Nearly a century ago, airline seats were as luxurious as wicker chairs nailed to the cabin floor. Reclining seats were a thing of the future, starting with the Fokker F-32, which took commercial aviation into the 1930s with added luxurious textiles, arm rests and some recline. 

Today, the airline seat – and particularly the premium airline seat – is a study as complex as rocket science when it comes to calculations of weight, materials, safety, exactitude, ergonomics, financial efficiencies, textiles, functions, comfort and let’s not forget aesthetics. That Business Class seat you are about to occupy can cost as much as a house to prototype, and easily as much as a small car to scale. 

While comfort has its price, what’s wrapped into the cost of those C (still keeping the old Pan Am “Clipper Class” code) and W (premium economy class) tickets is a study in design and architecture where all the little details start showing their purpose. The thinking behind the seat – the what of it, the why of it – has become a constant process of natural selection in which each airline upgrades incrementally until noticeable and novel change turns into the wave of things to come.

“Now that we have passed the fully lie-flat seat and that has become a standard, you might say it’s evolutions, not revolutions,” says James Boyd, spokesman for Singapore Airways. 

Singapore was the first to come out with fully reclining seats in First Class in 1989, followed by Virgin and British Air, who rolled out their lie-flat lines in 1996 complemented by sleepwear. Although sleeper “berths” were a hit on the transcon flights of the 1940s and 1950s, the Boeing 747 wide body jumbo jets of the 1970s took the upper class concept to new heights with a spiral staircase to a bar lounge and spacious seating in the loft cabin. 

By the mid-1980s, a privileged seat in Business Class, wedged between First and Coach, started showing up in trans-Atlantic flights on Virgin Atlantic and later SAS and Continental (which created a hybrid “BusinessFirst” cabin up front). These were essentially throne chairs that reclined a bit but had lots of legroom and a sumptuous 40-inch pitch (the measure of the distance from the top of the headrest of one upright seat to the same spot on the next seat forward or behind), an upgraded meal, luxury brand alcohol service and no middle seats. The glove was dropped and the gunfight was on. 

Invasion of the Pods

Since that time C-class seats have gone from neo-dentist chairs to shell-like pods to veritable mini-domes of privacy, and now a brand new class is emerging from the back of the plane to put some shine on upclassing in the midst of Coach: the Premium Economy seat.

Some airlines are beginning to phase out First Class altogether and put Business Class in the front of the plane. Other airlines, such as Etihad and Emirates, are sassing up the top seats and turning them into micro palaces. 

“We set the standard for what was to follow for new generations of First Class and Business Class Seats through Singapore Airlines,” says James Park, CEO of James Parks Associates (JPA) in London, which has designed seats for Singapore, Cathay, JAL, US Airways and other airlines. “But we had to use the knowledge we’d gained from the rail industry, where we had done quite a few compartment designs for Orient Express trains. At that time we were approached by Singapore Airlines because we were known for being good at designing small spaces.”

In all, there are six types of Business Class seats out there: Herringbone; Reverse Herringbone; Staggered Solstys; Staggered Vantage; Fully Flat; Angled Flat/Recliner. All the major airliners use a customized version of one of these seat concepts. 

Singapore, for instance, uses the Herringbone layout that allows for easy access to the aisle while giving passengers an angled, pod-like space for privacy. The Cirrus model seat was designed by JPA with help from Sicma Aero/Zodiac seat manufacturing. 

In 2013, JPA Design rolled out what it calls the Next Generation Business Class cabin for Singapore Airlines for 777-300ER aircraft. The $150 million redesign is also being installed on the airline’s Airbus A350 fleet. The lie-flat bed has ample “Z” space for side sleepers. The seat offers an 18-inch LCD screen and video touch-screen handset, an all-in-one business panel with in-seat power supply, USB port, eXport and HDMI ports, plus plenty of lighting for reading and finding those items stored. 

“The layout now is completely unique,” adds JPA design director John Tighe. “It uses similar fundamentals to the Singapore Airlines’ A380 Business class seat, first designed by us in 2006. However, every element is new, and has been designed to optimize every last inch of space, without sacrificing style.”

The key component of this seat is its fixed shell construction that uses a pressure thermo-forming process: in this plastic manufacturing process, compressed air pushes a plastic sheet against a mold. The shell allows for greater space efficiency and more seats, depending on the angle configuration, which allows airlines a range of flexibility in design and amenity packing. 

Shells have been in use for nearly 20 years, mostly in First Class but more recently in Business Class, and are beginning to trickle to the back of the plane. They contain all the necessary components of a premium seat: in-flight entertainment (IFE), tables, closet, storage, seat to bed articulation, a certain element of safety – and all the while offering passengers an enhanced sense of privacy in a small room they are sharing with some 40 other flyers. Everything is mounted to the shell, not the seat, and the effect is the difference between a living space and a piece of furniture. 

Configurations are usually 1-2-1 in Business Class formatted in a herringbone fashion that have the middle two seats angled forward like the bottom of a diamond with a wide triangle of surface space and inverted depth separating the two seats. Singular travelers may love it while couples or travel partners may find the spacing slightly awkward for easy conversation.

While the seat manages a similar footprint to the Business Class seat it replaced, it found two inches of bed length to add (to 78 inches or 6’6”), and maintains SIA’s trademark wide width. The 28-inch wide seat cushions make it one of the widest Business Class seats in the skies, allowing for extra ambient movement.

Class Distinctions

“What we are discovering is smart seat design is not just a race to provide more space. It is a race to provide the most comfortable space and fit according to what customers want and now expect that space to be over a long flight,” says SIA’s James Boyd. 

“Ironically, when we introduced the Next Generation seat, we started hearing that it had too much lateral space rather than too little. But that is a win when it is horizontal,” Boyd adds. “We have already, in many ways, crossed the finished line and can move on to next area – lighting, ergonomics, access to what passengers use, then service ware and access to tray tables. They may be very small points of discovery and comfort, but it is an ongoing process of listening to people who are paying for it and experiencing it, and incorporating what they are saying.” 

Similarly, Lufthansa rolled out its version of the Cirrus/Zodiac Herringbone seat in 2012 with a forward facing 2-2-2 configuration for long-haul Business Class flights. The new seating arrangement allowed for doubling the distance between passengers, shoulder to shoulder. The true lie-flat seat (no angle “creep” to these) extends out 1.98 meters or 6’4” and the seat pairs manage a comfortable and spacious V shape for maximum privacy. 

To test it, the airline invited 500 frequent flyers over eight months to come to a special hangar and spend the night on the seat. Lufthansa plans to complete installation of the seat on all intercontinental aircraft by the middle of next year.

“We still believe in a very big Business Class and we are the biggest Business Class cabin out there at the moment – 98 seats – and we are filling them,” says Lufthansa spokesman Nils Haupt. But to that end Haupt notes Lufthansa is reducing First Class and even eliminating the luxury cabin on 30 percent of its fleet starting next year in favor of the new darling on the block: Premium Economy. 

Premium Advantage

Perhaps it was EVA Air that got the ball rolling on Premium Economy in 1992 with its Elite Class seat on the long-hauls from Los Angeles to Taipei – a coach seat with a little more lateral inch-room and a metal footrest. Today the seat, designed by Teague (based in Seattle and instrumental in designing the interiors of the 787 Dreamliner), is slightly wider with some added recline (to 128 degrees) within a pitch of 38 inches and offering some adjustable foot and headrest room.

Passengers get an amenity kit, a dedicated check-in line and 55 pounds of baggage allowance. Eleven-inch touch screens offer access to inflight Wi-Fi, 300 CD selections, 90 movies, games, shopping, USB ports and 110V outlets. Configuration in Elite Class is 2-4-2 with 56 to 103 seats depending on the aircraft. 

EVA’s Business Class got a new do in 2012 when it unveiled a $100 million next gen for Royal Laurel Class for all of its Boeing 777-300ERs. The 38 fully lie-flat seats are laid out in reverse herringbone with some 26 inches of width and a bed extension of 79 inches (with an equal-sized comforter). Audio and video technologies include a 15.4-inch touch screen and high-fidelity noise-canceling headphones. BVLGARI products rule the amenity kit.

Premium Economy, however, is getting the biggest boost these days from a number of airlines. Singapore is coming out with what it hopes will be the next revolution in seating with its hybrid coach luxury seat next year. It does not have a name and the designer remains an unofficial mystery but suffice to say it is a designer SIA has likely used before with great success. 

“What you might start seeing in Premium Economy are upgrade philosophies taken from Business Class and applied to Economy,” says Park. “Lighter, more efficient spaces mean more space for the passenger – so you may still have same pitch but more space within that pitch. Expect better materials, entertainment, comfort. The way the seat deploys will be different, too. We have seen interesting developments at Air New Zealand with a seat that gives you quite a lot of legroom and is very close to a Business Class seat.”

Love That Seat

Air New Zealand unveiled its “Skycouch” or “Cuddle Seat” in 2010 as a premium feature for Economy Class. The innovative row of three seats converts to a nice, tight futon for two. Air New Zealand has 20 sets of these Skycouch seats on each of its Boeing 777-300ER. The catch is that the couple needs to purchase the third seat, although at a 50 percent discount. The design layout does not make too much sense for passengers who are not a couple or a family.

But it is the IDEO-designed Spaceseat unveiled last year that moved the needle on Premium Economy for Air New Zealand. The seat employs the “pod” concept that allows seats to slide forward rather than reclining, “and also tilt if you’re trying to curl up for a snooze,” says Kerry Reeves, Air New Zealand’s head of aircraft programs. “There’s a purple squashy beanbag that’s roughly 40 cm cubed in place of a footrest. The table folds down from the seat (or wall) in front, with a clever hinge so it can be used either half or fully open. The touchscreen entertainment monitor pops out on a small arm.”

The Spaceseat was designed with couples in mind, says Reeves, but also appeals to individuals looking for a more private flying experience in economy. The seats that run through the inner space of the cabin have been designed especially for couples, so they can relax together, or turn to face each other to share a meal. Seats along the margins of the plane offer more privacy for solo travelers. 

The leather luxury seat has a 41” pitch, 5” wide armrests and a leg rest and extendable foot support. The seat comes with premium check-in, on-demand inflight entertainment, noise canceling headphones, in-seat power, USB and iPod connections, chef-designed menu with Kiwi wines, 2-2-2 cabin configuration and a Business Premier amenity kit. These seats are expected to replace the premium economy seating in the 777-200ER fleet next year but are already installed on 300ER series. 

“We market it as a ‘Business Lite’ product,” says Reeves. “Premium Economy is a product that was launched on Air New Zealand in 2005 with an upgraded Economy seat. But we quickly realized the value this product gave our passengers based on the feedback and set about improving the seat product to provide more space and flexibility. This remains an emerging market. Many airlines still do not offer a true Premium Economy but more of an ‘economy plus’ proposition.”

True enough, US carriers have been slower to add the luxury that “Premium” may demand. United, for instance, debuted its Economy Plus seat in 1999 to offer more legroom and a spot at the cabin’s front. And, as more American carriers are managing to do, United now has flat-bed seats in its BusinessFirst cabins.

American Airlines and Delta also offer premium seats in their Economy cabin. American Airlines Main Cabin Extra’s seats offer “up to” six inches of added legroom plus group one boarding. Delta’s domestic Economy Comfort seats have up to four more inches of legroom.

Mint Condition

Latest to the premium seats game is JetBlue, which, in June, unveiled The Mint. The seat is on all JFK-LAX flights (adding SFO flights in October) and starts at a manageable $599 each way for a seat that unfolds and tucks under the seat in front of it to become a lie-flat bed that seems to float on air. There is also a massage feature, convenient shoulder light, lumbar support, power outlet, USB jacks and even a smartphone storage area. Food is through NYC’s Saxon+Parole (with organic mint chocolate chip ice cream from Brooklyn’s Blue Marble). And yes, there is a chic amenity kit.

While the seats in the back of the plane get ever smaller (saddles, anyone?), there will be plenty of room toward the front for those who can pay for it. Lighter and more durable seat frames will mean airlines will have more money to play with to create the next “it” thing in luxurious, if not cost-effective, seating. What that becomes can be pondered on those comfy 13-hour long-hauls, legs stretched, aged Scotch refresher on its way.  

By Lark Gould

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