Retro can be chic.  Far be it from this writer to claim otherwise.

But Zodiac Aerospace premiering a Forward/Aft Facing Triple Seat Pair as one of their “revolutionary” designs at the Aircraft Interiors Expo this year, feels like the Haunting.

The (in)famous “Lounge Seating,” was a Southwest Airlines feature for decades, and was never all that popular.

The airline based their successful business model on an unassigned seat platform.  Therefore there was no risk that any seats would go unsold because of placement.  Instead, Southwest sold enough tickets to fill the aircraft, people got on board, and those left with the lounge seats dealt with it.

Featured Image: Ghost/PacMan Flicker

Sure, there were some advantages for families travelling together, but more often there were awkward moments of strangers trying not to make eye contact.

I wound up on the SWA “Lounge Seats” on a few occasions travelling to Love.  I could describe the experience as similar to the corresponding seat arrangements on a train.  It wasn’t terrible.

If you were with friends, it was great.

If you were alone, you gave a little smile, looked at your knees a lot, and tried to make yourself busy with something to read; hoping the person sitting across from you wasn’t one of those very nice southern gentlemen who happened to be in sales and took Carnegie’s “making friends and influencing people” philosophy to heart, therefore considering it his social obligation to get to know everything about you and, more importantly, tell you everything about him.

That happened too.

I remember working with Southwest Airlines on these seats and the later program which killed this configuration.  We thought we’d done a good job of killing it.  But it seems some questionable ideas never die, they only go into hibernation later to be rehashed and redressed.

As the idea has reared it’s odd little head again, there are some pertinent questions:

If it endured until the ’01s was “Lounge Seating” such a bad idea after all, and why did SWA kill it?

It wasn’t a bad idea.  It was a brilliant idea, for the airline.  Forward/Aft triple seat pairs allowed SWA to increase their seat density, because the problematic bulk-head impact issue was eliminated as a result of the seats being installed with their backs to the bulkhead.

Getting that extra row in an aircraft, using a forward-facing seat, is a challenge because of the HIC (Head Impact Criterion) for seat certification.  Place the seats too close, and you risk that passengers may actually slam their heads onto the bulkhead.

Therefore, a separation between the seat and the bulkhead is required, adequate to ensure there is no risk of such head injury during crash conditions.

The forward/aft facing seat pair addressed this concern because the forward-facing seat was further from the bulkhead.  Aft-facing seats have no HIC issues against the bulkhead risk for obvious reasons.  Aft facing seats also pose less risk of injury because crash dynamics generally push passengers against the seat back, which reduces the risk of a number of other injuries.

So why did SWA kill this configuration?

It was a combination of factors: by nearly equal parts, safety, costs, and customer needs.

The safety factor was arguable.  There were questions whether passengers might collide against each other in a crash, with the specific separation of the SWA pairing.  SWA might have been required to increase the separation between the forward and the aft, eliminating the business advantage of this creative seat configuration.  No extra row, no point.

Aft facing seats were more expensive.  Though they might look like forward facing seats, they are not.  They are a separate production run from the forward facing seats, therefore more expensive to the manufacturer and the airline.  Because of low-demand for these seats, the costs were going to spike when SWA considered the introduction of a new cabin design and new seat model, so “Lounge Seats” were killed.

Also, customers did not love them.  Look at this USA Today article I found about the seats being waved bye-bye in 2001. (I love that we can find all sorts of useful lost things on the internet.)  Note the feedback from passengers at the time:

“I don’t like to sit backwards.  It tends to make me motion sick,” said Lisa McCann.

“People in the lounge seats tend to protect their personal space by putting something on the seat next to them, or putting their feet up to discourage anyone from sitting next to or across from them.,” said Clark Olson, to whom the opinion is credited, in an earlier paragraph, that “the seating is uncomfortable because it forces travellers to make eye-contact for what seems an interminable amount of time.”

Just how did the forward/aft seat pair manage to rise again?

They’re not so much rising again, as rising again again.  Lots of seat designers have tried different ways to make this idea work along the way.  Zodiac’s approach is only the latest.

With a great push to increase aircraft density, and maximise the square footage of the cabin, it is no surprise that the forward-aft facing seat proposal should reappear.  It solves the problem of increasing seat density without dealing with the nasty HIC issue.  With adequate design and testing, the body-to-body impact theory which contributed to the killing of the SWA “Lounge Seat,” can be disproven.

SWA could probably have gone through the trouble of proving there was no safety concern back in 2001, if they’d wanted to pay for the tests.  But the other cost factors were considerable and both SWA and B/E Aerospace, who made those seats, decided it wasn’t worth the bother.

Overall, cost factors were sufficient to say adieu to the “Lounge,” or, in Texas, “Vaya con Dios.”

Those seats were always the last girl to get picked at the dance; which begs the question, who would intentionally pay for them on assigned-seating airlines?

Families and friends travelling together might prefer them. They did, back in the day.  Individual passengers, however, did not “love” these seats.

What makes anyone think that forward/aft facing seats will work this time?

The fact is that Zodiac have turned this old idea on its head.  Instead of grouping six people together face-to-face, they simply put three people together.  The flip-up seat bottom has its own advantages for egress, and further accommodates a tight seating configuration.  Overall, it’s innovative.  It might prove more uncomfortable than the SWA “Lounge Seats,” but it looks futurey, in that Mork-from-Ork Egg Aesthetic kind of way.

Seriously:

1) It might be an attractive solution to a low-cost carrier with open seating, as was the case originally with SWA.

2) If they developed them, Zodiac may already know just what carriers would go for it.  Or, Zodiac Aerospace were trying something different on for size at the show, just to see if any customers would bite.  I’d rather think the former is true.  I don’t believe the clever folks at Zodiac Aerospace would fall into the trap of the latter.

Why aren’t all-Aft facing seat configurations a “thing”?

Considering the safety advantages of all-Aft facing seats, the reduced risk of various injuries, and allowance for greater seat density, you’d think some commercial airline would go all-Aft.

In fact, all-Aft seats are used, for example, in certain military transport, because of their safety advantage.  But the aft-facing position makes some people fell less in-control, anxious.  Military personnel don’t get to argue.  Paying passengers argue with their wallets.

Though other airlines besides SWA have tried forward/aft facing pairs, airlines have not been brave enough to try all aft-facing configurations, and, commercially, that’s probably for the best.

It would take an awful lot of marketing and public awareness campaigns to get passengers used to facing backwards all the time on every flight.

We could put it to a vote:

Will they fly again?

Zodiac’s uniquely designed tourist class forward/aft triple seat may fly.  Let’s remember that SWA kept their forward/aft flying right up to 2001.  Sure, they killed it, but while it flew they managed to fill the seats most of the time.  Sitting on these seats was rarely voluntarily.  Passengers most often sat there by default.  If they are selected by an airline with the same unassigned seat policy, there’s little reason to think they would be empty.

So, yes.  If I had to bet my peanuts, I’d say: why not?  The question is not really whether they might fly, but how long they would last this time around.

Welcome back, forward/aft triples–you’re looking nice after all these years.  Sorry I helped kill you last time.  Hope you don’t hold a Grudge.

7 thoughts

  1. The point about Zodiac’s new backwards and forward seating is that it offsets the elbow/shoulder space between adjacent passengers, so the effective width would be greatly increased as no one will bump their elbows with their neighbor. And in this configuration, directly in front of a passenger will be a seat back instead of another face (the one facing you is on the adjacent seat), so the social awkwardness shouldn’t be as bad as the SWA version.

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    1. James, you are absolutely right. This design does resolve the uncomfortable shoulder-width issue. You are also right that your neighbours are closer to staring at the seat panel in front of them that at you. However, the way the seats are nested presents other problems. Just even getting in and out, if your companions on the way to the aisle are asleep, presents a real challenge. Perhaps it is only slightly worse than present conditions on standard triples, given the tight pitch we’ve got on many aircraft now, but it will definitely require getting people up beside you to move out.

      One might say that the this Southwest Lounge Triple Seat Pair was a far more comfortable solution, except for the matter of shoulder width which you point out.

      This is a different approach, but not a wholly unique one. Ideas keep coming and going in our industry, always aimed at putting more passengers on the same aircraft for less. I’m not necessarily faulting that. It’s part of our industry’s economic reality. There are many ways to accomplish this goal. This latest Zodiac seat is one approach, very similar to other proposals out there.

      Should it take off, as it indeed might, we’ll see how well this one flies and how long it endures.

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  2. That’s true. No scheme is ever perfect, and there will always be some kind of give and take. It boils down to whether passengers wants to trade elbow comfort with the issues you mentioned (social awkwardness etc, and from the limited photos I see, the seat doesn’t seem to recline too). But for short flights that maybe that’s not an issue. We’ll see!

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  3. When traveling alone on South West Airlines I loved the rear facing seat. Im glad to hear they are returning. I just find them much more roomy and comfortable compared to the sardine type all front facing seats. Thank you SW.

    Jim

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