Singapore Airlines’ new Premium Economy cabin, revealed last week, has many attractive features to offer customers, both in the hard product and in its soft offerings and the quality of this product is best reflected in the skilled timing of its stitches.
Having seen the seats when they were revealed by Singapore Airlines I can say that, from an aircraft interiors design perspective, the perfection of details–even down to the accuracy and measure of the stitching pattern that decorates the new seats–best reflects the quality and longevity of Singapore Airlines’ newest product.
In collaboration with its design firm JPA Design, London, Singapore Airlines customised the same ZIM Flugsitz seat that Lufthansa selected for its new Premium Economy cabin. But the designer and the airline have proven that by adding custom fittings, elegant trim and master tailoring one can clearly differentiate a baseline seat structure.
Craftsmanship and Quality in Each and Every Stitch
The all-leather covers are expertly fitted, decorated with a strong graphic stitching pattern that is incredibly challenging for seat cover suppliers to get just right.
Even minor mistakes made in the production of these seats would result in scraping the unit.
Leather is a most unforgiving material. Once a hole is punctured, it cannot be sealed back again. If these tight graphic patterns skip or veer from their straight lines, then the seat back or seat bottom must be cast aside, a fresh replacement cut and stitched.
The leather covers are cushion-lined to create this quilting effect, which would mean wasting the composite materials, not just the leather.
While the airline, understandably, will not confirm the unit cost of each seat assembly, experience tells us that this could represent a waste of hundreds of dollars.
Singapore Airlines further complicates the manufacturing process by using non-repeating patterns in the graphic stitching. This creates an interesting visual variety that breaks the visual monotony of rows of seats.
The graphic stitching is also multicoloured, incorporating the orange and turquoise highlights of the design palette on the pale blue grey leather cover, which adds another layer of complexity to the manufacturing.
Assembling this attractive dress is likely streamlined through laser cutting and programmed stitching now available. But it requires costly specialised equipment, and a great deal of accuracy and skill on the part of those who complete the final assembly. No amount of automation which could facilitate the process takes away from the craftsmanship required to duplicate these high-design covers for hundreds of seats.
Singapore Airlines’ seat back has a moulded hard surface which encases the In-Flight Entertainment screen–the largest screen in its class, which delivers an immersive cinematic experience.
Using a hard surface like this at the back requires special tailoring–to keep the fitted leather on the cushions at the front taught and smooth.
When leather covers are dressed onto the back of the seat, the structure itself generates the necessary tension. But keeping leather smooth when held in place with a cushion–even one which has a firm backing component as the Singapore Airlines seat appears to have–requires difficult cutting and sewing counterbalance in the assembly.
The airline’s suppliers have accomplished this feat to perfection.
Top Quality Materials
Such a smart appearance also demands that the airline use the finest leathers, an expense which can increase throughout the life of the program. The market rate for leather can fluctuate greatly, in line with supply. The size and quality of individual hides, from season to season, can also increase costs or lead to a higher scrap rate.
The headrest, too, is beautifully fitted and finished; durable, reflecting both neatness and comfort.
An attractive stitched panel, precision joined in two tones of leather, one darker another matching the leather on the seat covers, decorates the hard magazine pocket below the screen.
Use of a hard magazine pocket will help ensure durability in a part of the seat which suffers great abuse.
In the long term, that will make the assembly more cost-effective, but it is far from a cheap choice.
Singapore Airlines could have kept the magazine pocket simple, a single leather panel might have done, but the airline chose to add design appeal instead.
This reflects a willingness to spend a bit extra to express the brand’s style aesthetic.
No doubt, as these leather panels accrue flight miles, they will need to be replaced. Passengers can be very rough with this assembly, and Singapore Airlines surely knows this. Its choice reflects that Singapore Airlines values quality and luxury over economics.
Investing in Quality
This is not to say that Singapore Airlines spent its money unwisely.
To the contrary, leather seating in general is more durable, can tolerate greater abuse than fabric seating, and is more hygienic–easier to clean–as well as more environmentally friendly.
Fabric covers require frequent dry cleaning, which in the volume of aviation maintenance has serious environmental implications. Fabric covers also have shorter service life cycles, and go to landfills sooner.
Some airlines have been clever, up-cycling old leather covers into consumer goods, an approach which also lessens the environmental impact of leather compared to fabrics. Perhaps Singapore Airlines will find a way to do that too. Regardless, choosing leather covers–which are far more expensive up front–reflects the airline’s commitment to the environment.
In the balance, Singapore Airlines made a significant investment in design and manufacturing to offer its passengers a superior quality product that will be sustainable.
The airline has reported its investment as $80 million dollars, but that does not include the costs to retrofit its aircraft adding this new cabin on a tight schedule; nor does it include the costs of keeping these cabins looking good over the years.
Passengers will benefit from many features of the airline’s new Premium Economy experience, but this carefully though-out and artfully delivered dress will enhance the experience in ways passengers may not immediately perceive.
They enter an attractive, modern cabin, and will enjoy a product for which even the smallest stitch was measured and kept true. These fine details communicate the airline’s commitment to excellence better than any advertisement.
When little things are done properly, big things naturally follow.
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I agree that these are beautifully done seats. I have a little bit of an issue with your infatuation with the precision and quality of the craftsmanship– you don’t cite your source for whether these were in fact fabricated by hand or machine. If the former, your comments are ironically denying the skill of the craftspeople. If the latter, you forget that the equipment is almost certainly still programmed and operated by humans, and humans were intimately involved in selecting and tanning the leather.
Finally, your statement about the environmental impact of leather vs. fabric is generally inaccurate. Of course, without detailed information on the fabric supply chain itself plus the cleaning schedule, methods, and materials used by each individual airline, it’s hard to measure and compare accurately. But in a one for one comparison, leather production is extremely resource intensive, from the cow through tanning, which is an extremely toxic and water-intensive process. On the other hand, just as one example of an industry standard upholstery fabric, heavy polyester jacquard can be produced from recycled fiber in a closed loop process that recaptures any water used.
This is a fascinating blog, glad I found it via Scott Eddy!
Thanks for your comments and for your compliments of the Flight Chic site.
I want it to be useful to readers, as a platform to pass on what I’ve learned over the years working in aviation, and what I’m learning now as I keep my eyes on the skies.
First, I should say that I write as someone who worked hands-on aircraft interiors products.
I started working in the field in 1994 so that tells you something about my age. 😉
Even so, I try to keep my perspective fresh and my mind open.
At no point did I mean to imply that the automation of production supersedes the value of craftsmen and women who work on these products. They are true artisans!
In fact, my point was the opposite. This is clearly a complex product despite the “help” of any automation in producing consistent results.
As to leather versus fabric, there are issues with both in aviation because of the stringent fire treatment safety requirements.
You are right about the environmental burden of leather production. In general, all bovine products have an environmental impact–from methane gasses they produce alone. (I can tell you I know far too much more detail than I ever wanted to know about the process of making leather. Let’s just say I enjoyed seeing the weaving machines which make the fabrics much more!)
But bovines include sheep, and the fabric used in aviation is wool (because of its natural fire retardant properties).
Despite that natural advantage, though, aviation fabrics must be chemically treated to pass fire testing (as are the leathers).
At that point it becomes a matter of how much of either raw material you have to produce and treat.
To ensure hygiene, fabric covers must also be frequently washed, and that can cause issues with dry-cleaning chemicals.
Overall, the industry has been reducing the environmental impact of both materials , but, in my experience, using leather for dress covers significantly reduces the amount of covers you need, which means fewer raw materials, and a reduced environmental impact overall.
Last, I should day that if I came across as gushing or fawning over this product in my article, it is only because I’ve worked on similar production programs. What you’re reading is professional admiration only–even a little envy. 😉
I know the hard work required, and scrapping involved to produce these results and I know most airlines would just have said “nonononononono” if I ever proposed such a design. They said plenty of “no”s to me, for far less ambitious programs.
I would say the same of any program this laborious and exacting, regardless of the airline.
Consider it no more than professional admiration for a job very well done.
Thank you reading and also for contributing.
I do hope that you’ll keep reading Flight Chic in future for more “insights from behind the scenes” in the skies.
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