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Profits Ain’t Peanuts (Part 4.1: Nutty Seating)

Take a Seat.  This will be a while.  Nutty Seating requires so much analysis that I’ve broken it up into smaller bits.  This is bit one.

I don’t like to repeat myself, but some of what I have to write about seats is worth repeating.  I also don’t like to contradict myself, but some of what I will say about seats will seem to contradict things I’ve written in other articles.

I often find myself feeling like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof.  “On the one hand…but on the other hand…but on the other hand..” and so on until, like Tevye, I reach that point of combined exasperation and resolve when I shout out: “No!  There is no other hand!”

There’s going to be some of that happening as I discuss seating.  There’s a good reason for that.  Seating is a Nutty business.  It pits competing aims against each other and those involved in the seating sector of the industry must resolve those conflicts.

I believe that, as you read this article, you will better understand why I appear to both echo myself and vacillate.  Be patient with me, it will all start to make sense in the end.  I promise.

WARNING: This article contains facts governing seating in our industry which may be frightening to those sensitive readers who already worry about getting on a plane.  I encourage you to read the article anyway, as it is best you understand the risks in order to better understand the design of the cabin.  Besides, don’t worry too much about those scary facts.  Experts in the industry are already worrying about them on your behalf 24/7.  They dedicate their careers and their lives to ensuring you never have anything to worry about.

The Nutty Seat

Seats are a nutty business.  Seat designers, seat manufacturers, seat components and materials manufacturers, regulators who write the TSOs, airline representatives responsible for selection, engineers and purchasing managers responsible for seat components–we’re all a little odd.  I say “we” as I was part of that unique group for so very long, and I still feel like I am a member of that group.  It’s one of those groups you never leave behind.  Whenever seats come up in the greater airline conversation, I prick up my ears, scratch my head, and sometimes even roll my eyes.

It’s the pressure, you know, which makes it such a mad business.  Not just the great pressure from passengers to provide more comfortable seating, or the vast pressure from the airlines to maintain rational LOPAs (Layout of Passenger Accommodations to lay persons) and sustainable load factors for flights.

I’m talking about enormous bone-crushing pressure: 16Gs of pressure, to be exact.  That is what seats are required by regulations to withstand in order to protect our frail jelly-like bodies from flying around the cabin and becoming so much mincemeat in an accident.  Sorry if that sounds grotesque, but it is a fact.

Coupled with that great pressure, is the ever-present threat of cabin fires reaching temperatures of the inner rings of hell.  Jet fuel, keep in mind, has a low flash point.  It is easily combustible and propagates readily once ignited, with open air burning temperatures between 260º to 315ºC (500-559º F) and maximum burning temperatures of 980º C (1796º F).  Those must also be addressed so that seats meet the established regulations and can be certified long before a seat ever makes it off the assembly line and on your plane.

If you don’t think those safety considerations limit cabin seating design and restrict the progress of cabin innovations, you’re wrong.

But before we delve into such technical complications and limitations (which can be more effectively covered over the next series of articles to follow) let’s deal with price and perception.

It costs a pretty penny

The airline industry is plagued by the perception that seats are designed for solely for economic advantage to the airline.  While economic concerns do play a part in the decisions airlines make to their cabin design, no airline is as cheap as you might think.   Seating is a major investment.

Actual seat costs are a closely guarded secret and will vary greatly from program to program according to the customisations selected by the airlines.  The FAA has previously printed some figures in an industry report which illustrate the investment airlines have to make quite well.  Passenger seats can range from a modest $2,300 per passenger place in the famously tight aircraft economy cabin to $150,000 for each of those lovely first class lay-flat seats.  (That’s the lay flat seat, not those nice individual cabins you get with certain airlines.  Those cost a whole heck of a lot more.)  These are costs for the seats.  Add the bells and whistles such as the IFE equipment, and the prices sky-rocket.

If you have a couple of minutes to spare, you can watch B/E Aerospace, a world-leading seat structure manufacturer, tell you all about it.

Now, I know what you’re thinking savvy traveller.  Those seat costs are paid-off within a few bookings, relative to the airline fare for those seat places.  In a word, no.

1) The airline fare covers a whole host of additional operating costs which far exceed the costs of the seats.

2) Seats have to be paid for and installed (at additional costs), long before they fly and are therefore a major capital investment and drain on cash-flow for airlines.

3) Seats also have to be maintained (at additional costs) and often replaced long before their investment has been covered.  Passengers can often be very hard on the seats and many need major repairs or replacement very shortly after they are installed and thereafter for the duration of their life-cycle in the cabin.

4) Those “damages” generate investment in spares.  I can give you a direct example from my previous job.  Among the components we made, were the covers you sit on.  A passenger place of cover set in fabric averaged $300 for economy and up to $1500 dollars for first class.  Each time a passenger does irreparable damage to a cover, or stains them in a way that no expert cleaner can address, they need to be scrapped and replaced.  Sales of spares accounted for over 90% of the units we sold to airlines, and those sales were ongoing, year after year, the backbone of our business.  Passengers are hard on seats, and that costs the airlines dearly.

5) Covers are not the only things which need frequent replacement.  Pricey seat cushions too get damaged.  Seat bottom cushions are specially developed as flotation because passengers may forget how to reach for that life-jacket because they weren’t paying attention to the safety video, or simply because crash circumstances make doing so impossible.  The foam required to make them float is expensive, especially as it needs to certify as resistant to the flammability considerations and temperatures I listed above.

I would be remiss if I did not point out that those self-same life jackets (which we also sold) have a very high replacement rate.  A number of passengers macabrely and irresponsibly take them off the plane as souvenirs, without considering how vital they might be for the next passenger.  A life jacket must be replaced each time it is removed from a flight before the next flight can take off.  Any life jackets a curious passenger has opened also has to be replaced for safety reasons.  This needs to be checked at every ground check.  Spares need to be available at every airline destination, to ensure they can be replaced when they go missing.  It gets expensive.

It all gets very expensive.

Seats are also heavy and fuel costs are high, so the fuel-burden of seats is a cost airlines must watch closely.

More comfortable seats, with more cushion, more room, more more, have to be designed against the industry need to make them less: less heavy, less prone to breakage, and yes, less expensive to buy up-front.

Airlines are businesses and must watch costs, otherwise they go broke.  We’ve already had plenty of that in the airline industry.

Perception is reality.

GET READY FOR IT: Major shift in point-of-view to follow.

All of those factors aside, airlines need to compete for the passenger dollar.  Therefore, they must address that perception by passengers that airlines are only concerned with making money and couldn’t care less about passenger comfort.  It doesn’t matter whether or not that is true.  It matters that passengers feel that way.  Passengers also have their reasons.

Take the travel wishes for 2014 of Katia Hetter writing for CNN on 30 December last year.

Among her wish-list for aviation are tall orders like a wish for the return of the empty middle seat, which would imply airlines are flying with under-booked flights of around 30%.  (Hardly an efficient or cost-effective use of an airplane.)

Katia would also like to see seats widen, as Airbus has recently proposed.  Recent industry news shows that some airlines are taking Airbus up on the concept, but adoption is mixed, even on Airbus aircraft.  There are sound reasons why airlines don’t just adopt this standard, like concerns over capacity and efficient equipment usage.  I have already covered some of these concerns in The Financial Pinch of that Extra Inch, but I’ll be covering them again, I’m sure.

The quest for a wider seat is a development to watch.  I’m at two minds about it, honestly.  I celebrate Airbus’ innovative attitude and courage for proposing something so directly beneficial to passengers and I’m concerned about the realities of implementing such a change.  As a passenger, I’d like a wider more comfortable seat.  As an aviation professional, I understand why I don’t always have one.

I know I’ll be writing about this topic again, probably many times.

Katia also wishes for fewer punitive charges from airlines (which certain airlines are trying to address) and faster flights (which both Airbus and Boeing are working to provide by developing even better aircraft.)

Katia may get some of what she wishes for from aviation, if not in 2014 then soon.  She may even get practically everything she wishes for in future, once the industry catches up with customer desires.

Katia is only expressing what other passengers feel, and rightly so.

The cost of an airline ticket is a significant expense for most, and passengers reasonably feel they want to get value for money.  As I’ve previously stated, aviation is up against Entitlement Theory, the theory that passengers reasonably feel entitled to a special experience when they step onboard an aircraft because aviation has actually done such a wonderful job of providing a special experience all along.  The perception that flying was better in “the good old days” may not be based in fact, but it is based in legend.

The legend of man mastering the elements, taking off the ground, floating in the clouds, and reaching remote parts of the world in a matter of hours.  Even faster than the birds themselves.  It’s a mythos-ethos, and a beautiful one. The jet-set industry is legendary.  It has achieved the impossible, and brought the world together as one closely knit global community.  It must work hard to keep the legend alive and well.

Katia expresses this beautifully in her article: “I know it’s physics but it’s also magic.  Despite the hassles and too-tight seats and packed flights.  Here’s to the magic continuing in 2014.”

Amen, Katia.  Amen.

Speaking of continuing the magic…  

Perhaps you’ve noticed that this is Nutty Seating 4.1.  

I needed wider space in my post-seat in order to fit my large ambitions for this topic.  

More tomorrow on Nutty Seating 4.2.  

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