How do airlines and their suppliers ensure the passenger’s onboard experience is one which takes into account their complete wellbeing? In this, the first part of a comprehensive three-part series, Bernie Baldwin examines the role of textiles with industry expert businesses that offer solutions.

Even when you’re not the person controlling a vehicle, travelling can be quite tiring. Sitting in roughly the same position for even a relatively short can affect the whole body. Doing so for many hours almost certainly does. Managing factors such as humidity control, the materials in contact with the passenger, plus food and beverage requirements, are among the methods to ensure the traveller’s overall wellbeing.

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Having boarded, the first sensation for the passenger is the general feel of the material with which they are in contact as they settle into their seat. And what they experience comes from a process involving discussions between the supplier and the airline about the attributes of the seat covers.

“Passenger perception of comfort can differ hugely from person to person, but can also be influenced by their overall travel experience and the emotions they are feeling at that particular time,” remarks Louise Gear, director of transport at ELeather. “With the Covid pandemic, passengers became increasingly aware of the cleanliness and hygiene of their seat.”

“Discussions vary with each airline, but in general we find the most common criteria they look for cover. These include the overall seat comfort, driven mostly by the shape, foam and feel of the finished cover; the ease of cleaning and hygiene properties; and the durability, sustainability, weight and performance of the materials,” Gear adds. “The list is long, but the demand from airlines to work on carbon reduction is high, so more sustainable products offering high-performance are on the up.”

Support

Matthew Nicholls, sales director at Tapis Corporation, agrees that for the most part, the major airlines know what they’re looking for. “Low-cost carriers (LCCs) may not have as big a department dedicated to such things, so they rely more on the suppliers for their support,” he says.

“Two great examples include JetBlue and Allegiant. JetBlue with their new Mint 2.0 suite and dress covers on their A220 were very involved with us, the seat cover company (Sabeti) and the cushion supplier (Tufted Needle). The airline wanted to ensure that their seat places were the best in class in terms of comfort. Tufted Needle are renowned in the US for their expertise in comfort cushions and mattresses. What they lacked in aviation experience though, was where JetBlue, Tapis and Sabeti made up the ground technically to create the final product.

“The JetBlue team had received complaints from passengers about them feeling hot and sweaty on longer flights and asked us to help solve that problem,” says Nicholls. “Our Promessa AV product has a layer of foam embedded between the fabric backcloth and polycarbonate top-skin that acts as a heat wicking layer. The heat dissipating power of the foam ensures the passenger is able to maintain a thermal equilibrium which prevents their body from kicking in to cool them – sweating.”

Allegiant are in the process of launching a new interior design and improving their passengers’ comfort is crucial. “They reviewed a wide selection of materials and as part of the process, had demonstration seats manufactured by different material providers, then asked their staff for feedback, ranking the seats on various physical criteria,” Nicholls recalls. “The Promessa AV product won comprehensively in terms of comfort, haptic and aesthetic quality.

“Once they had selected the materials, we hosted them for a workshop where we evaluated the build of their passenger places with pressure mapping technology to determine the correct thickness, density and type of foams and other materials used to ensure maximum comfort.”

Tapis products all contain anti-microbial material as standard and are all hypoallergenic and vegan – all increasingly important factors in the decision-making process.

Criteria

Lantal’s EVP aviation interiors, Luzius Rickenbacher, cites a number of key criteria when airlines make their selection. For example, regarding the breathability of a material – allowing air circulation – he believes that of a textile is “by far better” compared with leather or synthetic leather. “Furthermore, on a textile the passenger does not slide. Most people perceive the sliding effect on leather or synthetic leather as uncomfortable. On top of that, temperature control is easier with a textile. Leather is hot in the summer and cold in the winter,” he argues.

In terms of sustainability, bio-degradable fabric and leather both meet the highest sustainability requirements, Rickenbacher notes. Moreover, textile are being shipped on rolls, while leather is shipped as hide, so the cut loss is much smaller when rolls are being used, which means better sustainability.

“Noise is also key aspect of whether a passenger feels comfortable or not. This criterion is forgotten way too often. A textile has superior sound absorbing properties compared with leather or synthetic leather,” he adds.

“There are many points to be considered and really depends on the positioning and strategy of the airline, which material is the better selection. It is important to have a holistic view at this choice and not just focus on one criterion,” Rickenbacher emphasises.

The flights an airline offers also affect its choice of material. Seats for airlines which operate short/medium-haul flights have multiple cleansing actions each day whereas those for long-haul have the passenger sat for quite some length of time.

“There is a huge difference in the material for short vs long-haul,” states Rickenbacher. “On both leather and textile, the product can be manufactured to achieve lighter material, improved durability performance, and so on. Again, it depends on the positioning of the airline whether cost is at the core or the passenger as at the core of doing business.”

Trends

Trends as well as perception by the customer also play their part, Nicholls says. “Traditionally, almost all aircraft seat covers were made from fabric. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that mass adoption of leather occurred.

“It is common for long haul seats to be made from fabric due to the perception of fabric as being more breathable for long distances,” Nicholls notes. “For their Mint 2.0 suite though, JetBlue chose Promessa AV for the main seat cover and are very pleased with its performance and comfort on their long-haul routes. Advances in technology have made it possible to provide similar levels of comfort with synthetic leather (like our Promessa AV) that also has a high perceived value in line with a business or first class experience.”

Louise Gear observes how coated materials are more easily cleanable on-wing, whereas fabrics usually requires removal from the seat. “This adds cost in terms of staff-hours, spare covers, cleaning costs. In general we see short-haul flyers looking to switch to coated solutions to help with shorter turnaround times between flights. Long-haul flyers also consider how a material looks, especially after prolonged periods of use. They want the same level of cleanability, but also a high quality appearance that lasts.”

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