While aircraft seats must, first and foremost, serve the passenger, they must also meet requirements of the airlines. We report on the manufacturers’ design philosophies as well as some of their latest developments.
If cabin crew (and arguably check-in staff) are the human interface of an airline with its passengers, then aircraft seats are surely the physical interface. And what passengers want is for them both to be welcoming, comforting and supportive for the duration of the flight.
Seats in economy class – which, despite what airline adverts might have you believe, is where the majority of passengers travel – have become much slimmer in recent years. Their manufacturers continue to seek ways via new materials and smarter design to remove even more weight, while maintaining comfort.
Alan McInnes, senior vice president of sales for Acro Aircraft Seating, says his company has led the way in providing “elegantly designed economy class seats” for the last 10 years.
“Our seats are slimmer because we have removed any unnecessary layering of materials. More importantly, we have given the space saved back to the [passenger]. Space – not padding – delivers comfort,” he declares. “Of course, in removing layering we also remove unnecessary components and weight, delivering long term cost reduction for the airline.
“As we develop new seats, we evaluate new lightweight materials and the potential benefits that they offer in terms of comfort, durability, maintainability, weight and cost. Only after completing that evaluation can we consider the new material for our seats,” McInnes explains.
In a similar vein, Mirus Aircraft Seating’s sales and marketing manager, James Woodhead, believes the key challenge is “to balance weight removal with comfort, durability and cost. Weight is not the only factor in determining the success of an aircraft seat,” he stresses.
For Gary Doy, director of Pitch Aircraft Seating, there are always opportunities to reduce the weight of seats. “However,” he cautions, “we need to consider the other influencing factors in seat design that need to be balanced. Feature content, in-service reliability maintenance, modularity and optimisation for the airframe, are some of the factors that also drive weight and cost.
“Working with the most common structural seat concept (legs, spars and hangers), a great deal has been done to optimise the weight,” Doy continues. “Like an Olympic athlete, we are focused on the marginal gains delivered by carefully analysing the design and finding smart solutions to reduce weight and challenging commonplace principles.
“The Pitch PF3000 does this with its fixed back seat solution, which offers weight reduction by optimising the seat back structure and the absence of a recline mechanism,” he notes.
“Making one part do two jobs is also a core principle. On the PF3000, the rear tray table hinge is integrated into the seatback structural cross member, reducing weight and part count.”
Doy also agrees that new materials offer weight reduction opportunities.“Carbon fibre composite seat backs are now accepted as a viable alternative to the more traditional aluminium hoop frame. However, the weight savings need to take into account the complete system and material changes often need a very different design approach to realise the potential,” he emphasises.
Dr Mark Hiller, CEO, Recaro Aircraft Seating, says that seat makers face the challenge to increase passenger density, while increasing comfort and living space, all the while reducing weight.
Across its range, Recaro has responded with: the CL3710, at less than 12kg, for long haul flights; the BL3530 short and medium haul seat; plus, the SL3510 which is ‘a real lightweight’ at just 9kg. The CL3710 incorporates two innovative details created by the RECARO team to add a few decisive millimetres of space: one of the two beams under the seat structure is positioned slightly forward.
This, combined with positioning the inflight entertainment system box in a space-saving pancake construction under the seat pan, results in “an exceptional amount of passenger legroom”, according to Hiller.
Slightly at odds with these opinions is Geven’s marketing and sales manager, Rodolfo Baldascino. “After years of incremental innovations to save weight while improving comfort, we now have to concentrate any R&D effort towards a radical innovation on economy class seating. Only this will result in a real step forward in terms of product improvement,” he argues.
“The main limitations in exploring new frontiers in economy class seating are the airworthy and safety regulations. To obtain for a new prospective seating solution, the eligibility to be judged airworthy by the aviation authorities (FAA, EASA and so on), the seat makers have to face a very long and expensive path,” Baldascino observes.
“This sometimes discourages efforts to reach new frontiers if judged too challenging. Seating manufacturers prefer to concentrate their efforts on applying incremental innovation. Over the medium term, I do not expect additional dramatic improvement on weight without compromising – in an unacceptable way – the seat comfort in economy class.”
For Werner Lieberherr, executive vice president and chief operations officer, interior systems for Rockwell Collins, the recent past has been dealing with integrating B/E Aerospace into the company as much as with product development.
On the latter, he says the company is “always looking for new materials, processes and at basic seat architecture to reduce weight, but at the same time balancing weight reduction with safety, comfort, reliability and cost.”
Lieberherr sees benefits accruing from the acquisition because of the way the combined unit approaches developments.
“Smart (intelligent) products share three main pieces: a physical component (combination of mechanical, electrical, structural and pneumatic parts); a data collection and management component (sensors, microprocessors, data storage, controls, software, receivers, transmitters); and a connectivity component (antennae, standard protocols, networking, receivers, servers and operating systems),” he explains.
“The acquisition has enabled us to propel our core strength by us [the B/E Aerospace element] developing the physical component, with the other two main pieces where Rockwell Collins has historically led the market – their commercial and information management suite of products and systems.”
“The result [is that] our product development will naturally shift from largely mechanical engineering to true interdisciplinary systems engineering with resident core competencies and skills residing within the enterprise, differentiating our products to continue our market leadership,” Lieberherr adds.
Seat coverings are another area where weight reduction has been possible, but advances in materials have also brought improvements in comfort, ease-of-cleaning and durability.
As for what airlines are choosing, Pitch’s Doy observes: “We have seen an increase in the use of faux leather and leather dress covers in the economy seat sector, largely driven by the reduced cost of ownership. With high density, short haul operators, these materials are attractive because they are easy to wipe clean and do not have the same dry-cleaning requirements as fabric dress covers.
“The durability of the dress cover system is influenced by many factors including the construction, the facing material, the cushion construction, and the substrate design,” Doy continues.
“The PF3000 dress cover system uses laminated covers that are tied down over ergonomically moulded foams to provide a comfortable seat that holds the dress cover in a controlled position during its lifetime in service.”
The seat cover also offers airlines a good branding opportunity. PITCH has worked closely with its supplier, Sabeti Wain Aerospace, to develop a range of pre-engineered dress covers to help airlines with their decision-making process.
“The range covers our ‘Standard’ lightweight dress cover in Faux Leather,” says Doy. “The mid-range ‘Comfort’ cover is supplied in E-Leather with additional padding and feature lines in the headrest and lumbar area.
“Contrasting stitch detailing and fluid style lines are used to reinforce the 3D nature of the curved seatback to give the dress cover a well-tailored look. The ‘Premium’ dress cover comes with contrast auto-stitch detailing and an integrated headrest.”
Acro’s McInnes asserts that “the long-held perception within the industry is that fabric is more suited to long range seats and leather (real or simulated) is more suited to short to mid-range. However, it’s not always as straightforward as that”.
Recaro’s Hiller largely agrees but notes, “With the development of innovative materials, such as lightweight leather and composites, these traditional differences are vanishing and decision-making will be based on other factors, such as comfort and sustainability.”
Additionally, according to Geven’s Baldascino, airlines nowadays “have much more choice, not only in terms of leather and fabric (different patterns, different grains, different thickness and weight) but they can also select new material such as synthetic leather or covering material made partially with leather production waste and partially with synthetic material.
“With regards to seat covers, we have experienced innovative sewing techniques aimed at increasing the comfort, especially of the backrest covers by sewing or laminating foam material inside the cover itself,” Baldascino adds.
Comfort, aesthetically pleasing, nice to touch and lasting are the attributes that Rockwell Collins’ Lieberherr believes airlines want. “But also they want a material that can pass all the strict flammability certification requirements,” he notes.
“[So] on one hand you want something unique, but on the other hand, you need a material that consistently meets strict performance and regulatory standards. It’s an area where the engineering and marketing/branding departments need to work closely together.
“Overall, we see a general trend towards more mechanically processed and synthetic leathers, a greater emphasis on textures and 3D surfaces, more intricate stitching patterns, a broader colour pallet and greater use of colour/texture breaks in the seat covers,” Lieberherr comments.
With the focus at Mirus aimed at ‘redefining value in economy seating’, it’s no surprise that Woodhead believes that a “key requirement is having seats that are simple and cheap to maintain”. This is achieved by various means, he explains, “from simpler seat architecture and smarter structural design through to dress cover materials.
There are a number of advances in seat cover and foam technology that enhance comfort, durability and hygiene. For example, sculpted, structural foam seating surfaces, that provide comfort through enhanced ergonomic support, ensure reduced degradation and improved passenger experience”.
Although relatively new, Mirus’s Hawk seat is a proven product, says Woodhead. “It balances comfort, durability, weight and cost and can be equipped with a wide range of options (new features are to be revealed at AIX 2018 in Hamburg) and our RWorks industrial design team (an arm of Mirus also to be unveiled at AIX) can take things a step further by offering a full bespoke customer design process,” he reports.
Also new at AIX will be Mirus’s seats for 737 and A330 aircraft. After ‘a fantastic 12 months’ according to McInnes, Acro will be showing off new enhancements to the Series 3 ST range at AIX. “We’ll also be highlighting the seat’s capability with a new 188Y A320 HIC compliant LOPA,” the SVP notes.
“Meanwhile, the Series 7 – the new Acro Premium Economy seat – will have its first customer delivery during Hamburg week. We also plan to announce some extensions to the Series 6 seat family, with a new mid-market variant,” he remarks.
Having worked to fine-tune and complete the final development and certification of its new economy class seat, the Essenza, Geven will be announcing at AIX “some very important awards received on the supply of large quantities of this new seat to some very important European airlines,” Baldascino states. “The new Elemento long haul economy seat is also in the pipeline and we will disclose more about it in Hamburg as well.”
While B/E Aerospace has been merging into the Rockwell Collins fold in the past 12 months, it has also launched its full-height suite and its Aspire main cabin seat. Both products will be at AIX.
The former’s leather seats “feature 10 motors to adjust to the passenger’s desires for comfort and support – including a ‘zero gravity’ function inspired by NASA technology. The Aspire seat is designed to give passengers more living space with an increase in seat width over current generation seats,” Lieberherr reports.
“It has an advanced kinematic mechanism that cradles the passenger during recline plus added under-seat stowage and greater passenger living space due to the proprietary seat frame and leg structure.”
Gary Doy and the PITCH team will be showing off the PF3000 seat at AIX, but he is already happy with the progress. “Feedback from the market has been excellent,” he emphasises. “The PF3000 builds on the attributes of the PF2000, further increasing passenger space and adding functionality.
“The seat back is highly sculptured with a low-profile bungee storage system and an optimised table shape providing class-leading legroom even at the tightest pitch. A tablet holder sited behind the tray table with a USB power option makes the seat an ideal companion for the short haul business traveller.”
At AIX, RECARO Aircraft Seating will launch what the company describes as “an innovation for short and medium haul flights”, the BL3710. The new seat “sets itself apart with an ideal balance between lightweight construction and comfort”.
It weighs under 10kg and has numerous equipment options, which can be used to adapt the seat to each airline’s requirements.
RECARO sees the seat being deployed on short and medium haul routes. Meanwhile, it quietly made the first BL3710 delivery in early 2018 and says that “so far, customers are very impressed” with the seat. Exactly what any manufacturer wants from their product’s interface with a passenger.