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Profits Ain’t Peanuts (Part 4.2: Nutty Seating, the second helping)

Are you sitting comfortably?  

Farmer in rocking-chair reading The Progressive Farmer. “Farmer reading his farm paper” By George W. Ackerman, Coryell County, Texas, September 1931, Public Domain

Yesterday’s post covered some important facts which govern the certification of aircraft seating.  If you’re interested in learning more about those technical details and the processes required to manufacture aircraft seats, and you have a little time to spare, I have a few videos for you to watch.

If you want to understand the improvements made to seats over the past twenty years, you can watch this video of how former 9G approved seats performed under current 16G impact requirements:

When you watch this later video from TIMCO, using 16G certified seats, featured in a recent article on the Runway Girl Network, you can appreciate the difference between these two structure designs and see just how much the industry has improved.

These regulations are not arbitrary.  They are based on accident data and findings gathered from the NTSB and other airline accident investigation agencies around the world.  In short, what you see in the first video has happened.  Seats have come apart in airplane crashes, with deadly results.  Burn certification regulations have also arisen from accident reports.  How cabin components caught fire and how those fires spread because of inadequate flammability resistance of those components, helped shape present flammability regulations.  The deadly toxic emissions from the smoke as those fires burned were also considered when writing the regulations.

These are not pleasant things to think about, but experts in the aviation industry, dedicated to cabin interiors components, focus on these safety concerns and based their designs on ensuring these regulations are met.

Their aim is always not just to make an attractive comfortable cabin.  They must first ensure a safe one.

The challenges designers and engineers face to meet these two key certification requirements are significant.

In order to withstand 16G forces, seats must be built from components unlikely to come apart as the 9G design seats did in the first video shown above.  They need to balance those safety factors against needs for lighter seating, in order to ensure increased fuel efficiency for the airlines.  They also need to allow room in the weight specifications of the seat for the additional comfort features like IFE equipment, extra seat cushioning, and plush covers made from attractive and durable materials.  This requires constant innovation when selecting the materials used for the seat frame.

The two dominant safety concerns of impact resistance and flammability resistance are actually intertwined.

All components, materials, and assemblies which pass the impact requirements must also pass the flammability requirements.  While certain modern alloys exist which allow for greater strength in the frame, they may not meet flammability requirements.  Likewise, all materials, components and assemblies which pass the flammability may not support the required structural integrity.  When the right combination comes together, and a seat is finally approved, both airlines and seat manufacturers want to keep that seat in service.

It takes three years on average to get a seat approved, with a number of test-failures and redesigns required along the way.  The research and development costs are considerable.

Changing seat structures on a regular basis is impractical.  So is having a whole host of alternative structures and a large catalogue to choose from.

Manufacturers try to provide as much design selection as they can certify, and they constantly work on new seating designs.  A major change of all seat structures in service, however, would be staggered, phased into the world’s airline fleet over years—even decades.

Passengers are not likely to see the benefits of what the industry does quietly in the background, for a long time to come.  But change for the better is underway.

For an inside peek at the process of building those aircraft seats, you can view this wonderful PBS report which will take you into the B/E Aerospace seat manufacturing plant.  The video is a comprehensive report on the making of Bombardier Aircraft.  If you forward to minute 42, you can follow the reports on the aircraft cabin interiors and seat manufacturing process.

My thanks to the Runway Girl network for bringing this video to my attention.  If your curious about technical matters, you can read the article I wrote for the Runway Girl Network on the flammability certification requirements for cabin interiors.

To understand the attention airlines give to the design and fabrication process of their cabins, and better understand how a world-class cabin goes from concept to take-off, watch this excellent video behind the scenes at American Airlines new cabin design.


And now for something completely different…

Aviation constantly aspires to design a better seat.  While the certification requirements I’ve illustrated above and referenced in Nutty Seating 4.1 govern seat design, the industry constantly works towards improving  performance and comfort.  Some of the most revolutionary seat design concepts imagined by designers may be difficult to certify, and might never fly.  There are successful designs intended to improve the passenger experience, which have already made it to the cabin and are in service.

A great example is the recent introduction on select Airbus aircraft (the A320 to be exact) of seats designed by Acro Aircraft Seating.  Acro’s innovations tick many of the boxes on the wish lists of passengers and airlines.  They are lightweight, which is a fuel savings advantage for airlines.  They are sturdy and meet all the certification requirements I’ve mentioned.  They are wider than many seats in service (at 18”).  Certain models accommodate up to a six inch recline.  Some are outfitted with nifty features like cup holders and other comfort options.  Though the company has been around for twenty years working with aircraft seats, they are a recent entry into the nutty business of new seat manufacturing.  Their first seat option was developed in 2006.  Theirs is a positive development for the industry, motivating all manufacturers to think differently about their designs.

I expect the design of this seat to trickle down throughout the industry.  Though other manufacturers will have their own approaches to meeting these customer needs, Acro’s seats have gained enough attention and won enough industry prices for other seat manufacturers to take notice.  In time, this will result in seats which meet the needs both of the airlines and the passengers, standard on all aircraft.  That means greater comfort with an economic advantage.  But it will take time.

Going forwards by working backwards

The Acro seat is important to the industry in another critical way.  The amazing designs of lay-flat seats, more comfortable business class seating and those lush personal cabins world-class carriers provide get a lot of attention.  Rightly so.  They are beautiful and ultra-comfortable.  They are a delight for every passenger lucky enough to afford the ticket.  But they’re not what the industry needs to get ahead.

In Nuts for Business, I stated that great deal of cabin design and service considerations by airlines (both Low-Cost Carriers and Traditional Airlines) are targeted towards business passengers with tourist passengers benefiting.  I stand by that claim.

Despite perceptions that business passengers travel in business class or first class, a great deal of business passenger bookings are for economy class.  In order to ensure that business passengers are satisfied and loyal, airlines have attempted a wide range of passenger experience innovations which are the focus of this series.  When it comes to seating, airlines have made some very interesting decisions, with mixed results.

The introduction of Premium Economy is targeted at encouraging business frequent flyers to pay a little more in order to get a little more.  In most cases, there is no change to the seat itself, or a minor aesthetic one.  The primary change is to seat pitch.  This service also provides “goodies” and special attention which justify the higher airfare.

But even Premium Economy is limited seating.

Airlines need to fill the cabin with sufficient economy passengers to cover the costs of the flight.  The bulk of attention in cabin design should be back-to-front, not front-to-back.  Economy passengers are in the majority.  Because they are the majority, their feedback can make or break the brand.  Unhappy economy customers will drown out praise from satisfied Economy Plus, Business Class, and First Class Customers.  An airline which caters to the Economy Passenger will be a distinct advantage over their competitors.

There is no better evidence of this than the success of the Low-Cost Carriers.  With some exceptions (and some rising trends which we’ll examine in Profits Ain’t Peanuts: Nutty Seating 4.3 tomorrow) Low-Cost Carriers opt for the barest, least expensive, easiest to maintain seats.  They are also likely to maximise the passenger loads on their aircraft, sometimes providing very limited pitch and seat width.

If seat comfort is the top priority for passengers, why do Low-Cost Carriers do so well?

A Pinch of Salt

Nuts are often better when they’re lightly salted, and the nutty topic of aircraft seats needs to be taken with a grain of salt.  Not the safety aspect.  That is a profoundly serious matter, never to be taken lightly.  But the rest of it needs to be put in perspective, judged on its financial merits.

Airlines need to focus their seat selections on a number of factors, not on comments from the travelling public alone.  They need to be consistent with the airline’s brand.  They need to be suited to the length of the journey.  They need to ensure an economic stability for the airline.  Seats need to be full.  Completely full, if possible.

That’s right.  Crowded planes are happy planes.  When airlines have healthy load factors, they are profitable.  When they are profitable they can make investments to further improve the overall passenger experience.  Profitable airlines have happy customers.

The claim that passengers are solely dissatisfied with their inflight experience because they feel crowded-in is utterly false.  I base this statement on three key facts.

1) Many world-class airlines with exceptional reviews, who enjoy customer loyalty and consistently ensure customer satisfaction, often have crowded economy cabins.  Most of those economy cabins are equipped with the same tight seats as other airlines, same close pitch, same limited recline.

Their customers are happy because they receive attentive service from pleasant flight attendants.  Their aircraft cabins are impeccably clean and all the equipment is well maintained.  They offer great IFE.  Their inflight meals look appetising and taste better.  They have reliable flight schedules and great on-time performance.  Their great service starts at the moment of booking, continues consistently throughout the travel experience, and never ends.  The passenger finds the same great service, same nice conditions, same consistency flight after flight.

Crowded passengers on those carriers keep coming back.

2) Passengers admit as much.  When the question of seating was posted on the Jet passenger forum, based on a recent article in the New York Times, I paid close attention.  Yes, there were a number of complaints about recline, insufficient pitch, and tight seats which are hard to sit on for long periods.  But customer service trumps seat comfort.  When I originally posted the link to this article on the Flight Chic RebelMouse page, I gave it the provocative headline: “Will Flight Rage Follow?”  I wasn’t being funny.  It is a concern, especially in certain markets and under certain conditions where passengers are less prone to be patient or polite.

Service makes all the difference, along with the effective management of customer expectations.

Low-Cost Carriers and Ultra-Low Cost Carriers succeed because they set low expectations (you’re getting a cheap flight), and then they surprise their customers with a better experience than expected.  As the old saying goes: under promise, over deliver.

Recently a passenger on the Jet network mentioned that he would never fly a domestic US carrier again, because he was so uncomfortable during his flight.  Initially, his comments blamed the seat.  As I knew that airline was about to undergo a major cabin update, I asked whether he would give them a second chance once the cabin had been improved.  Since he’d said that he was taking longer flights in order to avoid the routes this airline he loathes covered, I expected a yes, or a maybe.  I got a definitive no.  The reasons: lousy customer service in general and inattentive cabin crew, as well as little financial incentive to fly the airline again.  He will continue flying the longer flights on the two carriers he much prefers, one of which is a Low-Cost Carrier.  Seat pitches, seat widths, and load factors are comparable on his preferred airlines.  In fact, the Low-Cost Carrier’s seats are just a little bit tighter and the planes more frequently crowded.

3) Affordable airfare trumps all other factors.  Even Low-Cost Carriers with reputations for being abrasive do well.  They offer amazingly competitive fares and people love them for it, even when they love to hate them.

The Game Changers

That said, the more things stay the same, the more they change.  We’ll discuss these game changers (many of them Low-Cost Carriers) and their impact of their innovations to aircraft seating trends in the next serving: Nutty Seating 4.3 tomorrow.

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