Stephanie Taylor explores how and why companies are replacing traditional textiles and leather in aircraft cabins with re-engineered high-performance materials to improve the passenger experience.
As with most facets of the aircraft cabin, the majority of innovative design in leather and textiles tends to be exhibited at the front of the plane.
It follows that we’ve recently heard in detail about the superior quality of the ‘soft leather seating’ in Emirates’ new First Class Suites and the magic of the ‘hand-stitched leather and satin rose gold finishing’ in Qatar’s new Qsuite.
This is all very well, but with global passenger numbers increasing, primarily due to the growing middle classes in the Asia-Pacific region and India, most new flyers will be travelling in economy. What about the materials they will come into contact with on their journey?
For Gary Doy, director of Pitch Aircraft Seating, the most pertinent question regarding textiles and leather in the aircraft cabin is regarding the value airlines place on the perceived quality and branding of economy class seating.
Doy explains: “The marketplace is highly competitive, with cost, weight, durability and availability being the main drivers behind an airline’s purchase decision. Is there really an interest in the market to push for higher perceived quality, or have we reached an acceptable plateau with no real need for improvement?”
With this question in mind, Pitch Aircraft Seating embarked upon ‘Project Surface’ with the aim of exploring “high-end surface finishes and branding on the PF3000 economy seat”.
Changes will be restricted to material finishes and the dress cover design, with the results of the four-month endeavour due to be showcased on a standard PF3000 triple-seat at Pitch’s stand as part of this year’s Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg.
While the project is still in progress, Doy asserts he is seeing the trend for more printing on dress covers. However, he acknowledges this will always be a limited market due to aircraft leasing, which limits more permanent forms of personalisation.
Elsewhere, he predicts that fabric will soon come back into popularity, claiming “the market appears to be cyclical, and leather is currently more popular”.
According to Matthew Nicholls, sales director of Tapis Corporation, whose products feature in over 100 airlines’ First and Business Class products (including new Emirates Suites), this is certainly the case.
Commenting specifically on the airline industry, he attests: “Perhaps as little as three years ago, the split was around 50/50 for leather and fabric, and within the leather split it was around 80/20 in favour of full leather. In the last few years, particularly in the US, this has changed to 80/20 in favour of synthetic leather.
“We’re also now starting to see the European airlines begin to change. Most likely, Asia-Pacific will be next and the Middle East the last,” adds Nicholls. “Probably the biggest reason for the change is the acceptance of synthetic materials as high performance materials as opposed to the classic PVC perspective that customers have.
“With the advent and acceptance of other high performance materials such as Cordura, Climalite, Gore-Tex and more, there has come the realisation that engineered materials offer significant advantages and at a much lower cost point.”
One such company demonstrating the benefit of high performance materials is E-Leather, which supplies upholstery and cladding for over 150 airlines as well as bus and rail companies. Its eponymous product is made from natural leather off-cuts, trimmings and shavings, and claims to be a preferable alternative to real leather, faux leather and fabrics.
In February this year, E-Leather announced it had secured £70 million in funding from both existing and new investors, with which it plans to create a ‘global innovation headquarters’. The state-of-the-art facility will allow the company to quadruple production when it opens in 2019.
News of this investment comes shortly before E-Leather’s corporate rebrand, which will also be unveiled at AIX. Nicola Rapley, the company’s marketing manager, notes: “the new brand will help E-Leather appeal to a wider audience, including consumer markets, and strengthen our position as a unique technology in multiple markets.”
Alongside the new corporate brand identity, Rapley confirms E-Leather will showcase a number of exciting developments in new collections and products based on collaboration with industry recognised colour, materials and finish experts.
Rapley states: “Our expansion is required to support increased demand for technology in all markets, including Nike Flyleather.”
In September 2017, E-Leather entered a long-term strategic innovation partnership to create Flyleather as a ‘sustainable, high-performance super material’ for the industry-leading sports brand.
Why is this relevant? Rapley declares: “The materials we engineer for the aviation and other transportation markets offer the same performance and sustainability benefits as Nike Flyleather. Nike is proud to claim ‘50 per cent leather, 100 per cent performance’, and this applies to other customers of E-Leather.
“There will be product developments and consumer-driven trends initiated by Nike Flyleather which we expect to be rolled out in future to aircraft cabins as well; airlines are more frequently taking inspiration from consumer trends to incorporate in aircraft cabins.”
Nike themselves proclaim Flyleather, which is made with at least 50 per cent recycled natural leather fibre and water power, is 40 per cent lighter and five times more durable than traditional leather-based on abrasion testing.
Talking about the development of Flyleather, Nike’s chief design officer, John Hoke, declared: “Similar to what Nike Flyknit did for knit, Nike Flyleather can do for leather.”
Fabrics are also being rendered as high-performance materials, and this hasn’t gone unnoticed in the airline industry either. Indeed, it seems that what E-Leather can do to improve on traditional leather aircraft seating, LIFT by EnCore is doing to improve on traditional fabric aircraft seating.
Elijah Dobrusin, LIFT by EnCore’s vice president of development and strategy, said that before the company set to work on its 787 Dreamliner Tourist Class Seating – which was announced at AIX in 2017 and is shortlisted for a Crystal Cabin Award in the ‘Passenger Comfort Hardware’ category this year – it looked to other industries.
“We ended up looking at sports apparel and footwear and how companies had innovated with knit,” Elijah remarks. “We challenged ourselves to develop new weaving techniques with our manufacturing partners, and we’ve ended up with one fabric that can support multiple different material characteristics. Like the new material used in athletic shoes, there are areas on our fabric’s surface which are more breathable and more flexible than others.”
Dobrusin discloses that LIFT by EnCore’s 787 Dreamliner Tourist Class Seating will hopefully have fewer seams across both the cushions and dress covers compared to other fabric seat offerings, which will reduce the amount of labour required during production as well as enhancing comfort and durability– ‘the best of both worlds’.
In terms of the visual aesthetic, Dobrusin says LIFT by EnCore is focusing on having big patterns and big repeats to create “one single radiating image, which is more interesting than a small pattern with small repeats, which have tended to be the norm for fabric aircraft seats”.
LIFT by EnCore’s fabric is being manufactured using innovative new knitting technology, some of which is already so advanced it is also undergoing experiments in space.
For example, in February this year, the Advanced Textiles Research Group (ATRG) at the UK’s Nottingham Trent University announced they were knitting antenna reflectors from high performance gold wire to help send and receive radio signals in orbit, taking durability to the extreme.
Why did LIFT by Encore choose high-performance fabric and not high-performance leather? Dobrusin maintains it’s the industry-standard on long haul flights- something Doy also points out.
If looking to other industries is an indication of what’s to come, Doy may well be right in predicting a broader move back towards fabrics in the aircraft cabin. Take Range Rover’s decision to offer ‘a sustainable premium interior with Kvadrat textiles, as an alternative to leather’ as one of five interior options on its new Velar model launched in 2017.
The solution created by Kvadrat has been named ‘Dapple Grey,’ and is described by the company as a ‘specially developed woollen textile’ which exhibits ‘the natural characteristics of wool, with its hardwearing and comfortable for all climates, by staying cool in the heat and warm in the cold.’
Nonetheless, aircraft seating sees more wear and tear that a luxury SUV. Doy says leather is chosen on short haul routes because not only is it not as easy to ‘see the dirt’ but it’s far easier to clean, which ultimately allows short haul carriers to execute quicker turnarounds and look after their bottom lines.
Indeed, LIFT by EnCore’s new 787 Dreamliner Tourist Class Seating follows on from its 737 Tourist Class Seating, which was launched in April 2016 and made use of Tapis’ Promessa Ultraleather, part of its Apex range for seating surfaces.
The range is something Tapis has seen value in continuing to develop. Nicholls divulges: “This year at AIX we are relaunching our new Apex range for seating surfaces. Our seating product was launched successfully with Lift two years ago and we have flown as a catalogue option for Zodiac, Embraer, Rockwell and Boeing for over ten years.
“The new product is more focused on comfort, affordability and performance,” Nicholls continues. “The Apex range is manufactured using our proprietary Takumi technology, is guaranteed not to delaminate and comes with a standard five-year warranty for performance. It features our Ink Resist technology that allows you to remove ballpoint pen with a simple alcohol cleaning wipe after more than two years.”
Tapis’ Takumi process is proprietary. Nicholls explains: “The standard polyurethane process involves laminating or bonding either a fabric substrate or a leather fibre substrate to a polyurethane top coat. The bonding or lamination can be a weak spot and there have been cases where the layers separate and delaminate.
“Our process is what we call an immersive process where our resins, polyurethane and high performance polycarbonate (the same material Tumi makes their indestructible cases out of) are applied in a wet process.
“The wet process eliminates the need for adhesives and lamination, so our product has no way to delaminate or prematurely break down. The Takumi process also applies a unique foam layer directly below the topskin which works to dissipate heat and provide an additional comfort support layer.”
Before securing a contract with LIFT by EnCore, Nicholls recounts: “We participated in a large-scale trial of materials concerning the ability to laminate, upholster and maintainability. The company conducting the trials commented that our material was the easiest to work with from a sewing perspective and laminated the cleanest with the most uniform bond, mostly because of the high range of thermal stability that the Promessa construction offers.”
Whether airlines and/or OEMs opt for fabric or leather, a consistent supply is important. According to Persistence Market Research, “the major trend among airline owners is entering into partnering with one stop suppliers that can fulfil their entire aircraft interior fabric requirements. As a result, the suppliers are expanding their product portfolio offering range of fabrics, vinyl and leather.”
As a matter of fact, Nicholls argues: “In previous years many airlines opted for a Buyer-Furnished Equipment (BFE) approach, which gave them the liberty to choose their own suppliers, each with vastly different evaluation systems concerning their ability to supply.
“In recent years, several seat OEMs have faced delays in supplying seats that can be traced to late or delinquent material suppliers. The airframe manufacturers are now putting more stringent requirements in place and are pushing more Supplier-Furnished Equipment (SFE) driven business to ensure the continuity of their supply chain throughout.”
Despite the aforementioned stringent supply chain requirements and the airline industry’s certification process, it’s an exciting time for leather and textiles as the gap between consumer and aviation technology continues to be bridged.
If the 25th edition of The Materials Show in Portland, OR – founded by Hisham Muhareb, formerly Nike’s materials manager – this year is anything to go by, we could soon be seeing transparent leather or reflective hologram materials. Let’s just hope it makes its way to the back of the aircraft, too.