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The Secret War Over The Aircraft Seat To End All Seat Wars

The gentle designer responsible for a number of creative seat innovations–likely to end cabin all manner of cabin conflicts–has recently found himself under attack from heavy machinery.

Hubbard's Small Silkmoth Caterpillar (Sphingicampa hubbardi), Clinton & Charles Robertson from Del Rio, Texas & College Station, TX, USA, CC Wikimedia
Hubbard’s Small Silkmoth Caterpillar (Sphingicampa hubbardi), Clinton & Charles Robertson from Del Rio, Texas & College Station, TX, USA, CC Wikimedia

An innovative seat suite, designed by James S.H. Lee, Director of Paperclip Design Limited, Hong Kong, came to the attention of a disgruntled Big Business which took exception to the name Lee had given the design.  A war of words of mythic proportions ensued: with the Big Business in question playing the part of Goliath, and designer Lee put in the position of David.

Butterfly PEY Baby-Sleep/James H. Lee, Paperclip Design
Butterfly PEY Baby-Sleep/James S.H. Lee, Paperclip Design

Though bombastic, the dispute snuck under the aviation industry radar.  Flight Chic is now bringing the matter to light as the timing is fitting.  This week the Aircraft Interiors Expo, Americas takes place in Seattle; an Expo which has fostered and nurtured Lee’s creations throughout the years.

The Big Business in question is a construction and mining equipment giant, which believes it has the exclusive claim on a gentle vegetarian Lepidoptera, and asserts rights on anything wanting to dub itself by that charming creature’s name in the skies. The company issued a cease and desist letter to the innovative and pacifistic designer, for his Crystal Cabin Award-winning formerly-named Cat*rpil*r Convertible Business Class Suite, alleging that the scope of its trademarks also extend to the use of the word “cat*rpil*r” in aviation. The heavy machinery colossus told the designer it owned all rights to the “c” word in a lengthy and intimidating letter sent by the company’s Hong-Kong based legal counsel Hogan Lovells.

Though the Big Business in question has never made any aviation-related equipment, and is neither certified by Regulators to manufacture seats nor or set to apply for such certification, it references a single element of its trademark to support its claim: the word “air”.

“Class 12 vehicles: apparatus for locomotion by land, air, or water, vehicles for earth moving, earth conditioning, construction, material handling, mining, paving; agriculture and forestry; fork lift trucks; pallet movers; locomotives; agricultural tractors; engines for land vehicles, transmissions for land vehicles; structural repair and replacement parts for all the foregoing.”

No one in aviation, or watching the industry, confused Lee’s former “cat*rpill*r” Business Class seat for a tractor; and the Big Business does not claim in its cease and desist letter that it will diversify from building heavy machinery to making light aircraft seats.  Regardless, the company holds firm to its claim that it owns the rights to the future-chrysalis-dwellers everywhere.

The Big Business’ lawyers even used the limited media exposure Lee received in recognition of his accomplishments, and the title on the Crystal Cabin Award Lee original received for his innovative design, as evidence of the designer’s alleged infringement. Note that Lee does not manufacture seats, he only designs them.  It would ultimately be up to whatever manufacturer buys the design to give the product a marketable name.

The Big “C’s” legal representatives also warned the designer to immediately stop referring to the seat as a Cat*rpill*r and to “destroy or delete all materials physical or electronic, including those on Internet platforms such as website(s), social media accounts(s), (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram), referencing the “CATERPILLAR” mark, which are in your possession, control or custody, whether in Hong Kong or elsewhere.”

Lee was by equal parts confused and amused by all this legal fluttering.  He is, after all, a creative and a one man operation.  “I find it both frustrating and funny,” he told Flight Chic.  “I suppose this is the cost for getting famous!” Flight Chic takes full responsibility for her small part in this mess.  An article I prepared for Skift earlier this year, after the Hamburg Aircraft Interiors Expo, was fairly popular and brought the designer to the world’s attention.  It inspired many other writers to prepare their own articles and to interview the charming Lee, ultimately putting Lee in Big “C’s” sights. Lee considered Big Business’ claim tenuous, at best.

“According to that reasoning, anything that can be put on a plane would be covered by their trademark, chairs, tables, walls, cups, plates, doors, light bulbs,” he told me.  “In fact, my lawyer said if we are really to go into litigation, I might be able to invalidate their claim to ‘air locomotion’ as they haven’t really been present in that market.”

Lee originally named the revolutionary Business Class seat design a cat*rpill*r seat because it converts from an “S” shape—the shape of the little creature in motion—into a wide and comfortable seat with a bed, extending hidden wings of the cushions to form the mattress. Rather than get himself mired in litigation, Lee has taken the high-road and changed the seat’s name to Butterfly.  A natural evolution, even more beautiful than the original.  A great seat, by any other name, is still a suite.

Lee also designed a Meerkat seat concept for Economy class, which includes a number of unique passenger-enhancement features that could finally bring peace to conflict-ridden cabins.  Because the Meerkat reclines forward on a sled, rather than back into the space of the person seated behind you, it is an ideal solution to the current Knee-Defender crisis; though it would first have to get from the drawing board to the product development phase.

No meerkats have yet complained over the name for Lee’s Economy seat proposal.  The “C” company also brands itself as CAT, but meerkats aren’t felines.  However, the origin of the word caterpillar does come from the French word chatepelose—a hairy cat.  For Lee, figuring out what’s in a name has become a hairy situation; which serves as a cautionary tale for creatives everywhere hoping to spread their wings. We can only hope that at this Aircraft Interiors Expo, Americas, some brilliant manufacturer will finally let one of these innovative designs out of its concept cocoon to spread its colourful wings.

Call them what you will, these ideas should be flying.

UPDATE: Apparently, IATA feels these designs should be flying too.  Let’s hope that translates into an airline expressing interest which leads to a manufacturer picking up the design.  At the very least, Lee was compensated for a bit of his hassle and patience.

9 thoughts on “The Secret War Over The Aircraft Seat To End All Seat Wars”

  1. While Paperclip Design is a truly creative company, economy-class seats that ‘recline’ by the seat-bottom sliding forward (thus, a recliner loses his/her own legroom) have been on the market since _before_ the Knee Defender.

    I know this because I invented the Knee Defender™.

    But the airlines have refused to install such seats. Why? Well, for starters, the airlines would first have to acknowledge there is a reclining-seat “problem” – and, to date, every airline that has reclinable seats in its planes has refused do that.

    1. In other words, a sliding-seat-bottom design for airplane seats has been around since at least 2003, when Knee Defender came to market.

      Maybe now the airlines will start installing that sort of seat.

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  5. The Butterfly suite would make an absolutely amazing premium economy seat! For airlines that operate a true premium class rather than a Y+ they have struggled with innovative concepts like ANZ, although JAL’s seat is now quite nice. This however would massively encourage upselling as it is so much more than a regular seat but with the same footprint, so an excellent yield opportunity.

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