Smaller, better, lighter: The evolution of airline seating

Jan 12, 2020

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Creating a comfortable seat doesn’t seem so difficult. Walk into any manicure joint and you’ll find massage chairs lined up and ready for you to settle in. Automaker Nissan says its zero-gravity seats provide continuous support from your hips to your shoulders.

Now think about your most recent trip in an airline economy cabin. Comfortable may not be the first adjective that comes to mind.

In fairness, airlines have a lot of design pressures and regulations. When the first commercial aircraft took off a hundred years ago, passengers were in wicker chairs that weren’t even bolted in. Today, airplane seats are required to meet a 12-second vertical burn test and withstand force 16 times that of gravity. Plus, they must be lightweight with a foam cushion suitable as a flotation device and be durable enough to withstand jumping toddlers and heavy sitters and snoozers.

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Add the need to squeeze as many paying passengers as possible into the cabin in order to make money and innovation is a difficult process.

The method to the madness

Primarily made of fire-resistant aluminum, seat frames are designed to protect and serve. Blocks of polyurethane foam are attached to the aluminum and wrapped with treated upholstery that gives you a fighting chance to survive an airplane crash and fire.

We should stop complaining, right? However, if you’ve ever taken a 15-hour flight from Dubai to Houston in the middle seat of a 777 – or even a three-hour Dallas-to-Detroit flight – you know that aircraft comfort is less than optimal.

But before you rhapsodize about the golden age of flying 50 years ago, remember that tickets were financially out of reach for many people. Today, economy class seating is not plush, but travel is more affordable for all.

(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
The early days of flight were a bit different than it is today. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, “The current trend is pointing in one direction: To reduce fuel consumption, airlines are looking for more ways to reduce weight in aircraft interiors”, says RECARO, one of the top global players in the manufacture of seats for all kinds of commercial uses. “This is especially true in the case of economy class seats”.

The RECARO BL3530 seat, for instance, weighs just over 22 pounds. That’s probably a lot heavier than the wicker seats on those first Lawson airliners, but a heck of a lot safer.

Lighter materials are on the rise. Singapore Airlines’ newest business-class seats are surrounded with a privacy shell made from the same ultralight carbon monoblock used in Formula 1 cars. And the seat fabric, pillows and duvets are made by Poltrano Frau, which also upholsters for Ferrari.

How have commercial airline seats changed?

In the early days of flying, passenger airplane seats could withstand a G-force of 6 g — six times the force of gravity. In the 1950s, the requirement was raised to 9 g, and seats today are required to withstand 16 g.

Seats are designed for impact and manufacturers have learned how to use lighter materials that are also more durable. There are psychological constraints to impact design, however. Consider infant car seats: They’re positioned backward for optimal protection of a baby’s spine. In an airplane, most people don’t want to – or won’t – fly backward. Thus, commercial airline seats are designed to protect you as best as they can.

Your narrow, rigid seat is directly correlated to your survival upon impact. Consider the following information from Boeing:

  • In December 2008, an airplane crashed while taking off, ending up on fire in a 40-foot-deep ravine several hundred yards from the runway. There were no fatalities among the 115 passengers and crew, even though the metal fuselage had been breached by fire.
  • In December 2009, an airplane carrying 154 passengers and crew overran the runway during a landing in heavy rain and broke apart. There were no fatalities.
  • In August 2010, an airplane crashed while attempting to land in poor weather, breaking into three pieces on impact. There were 125 survivors among the 127 passengers and crew.
(Photo by Johan Marengrd/EyeEm/Getty Images)
(Photo by Johan Marengrd/EyeEm/Getty Images)

Now, there are far more restrictions on airplane seat safety. In the event of a crash or emergency landing a seat must hold the passenger steady but not obstruct the way out of the aircraft. On top of that, airlines must meet a federal standard for fire-retardant materials.

In the private aircraft market, there is more flexibility. “The closer you get to commercial airlines, the more strict the flammability rules”, says designer Edese Doret. “Private aircraft can use carbon fiber, wood and other materials. We borrow heavily from automotive, especially with smaller aircraft like Gulfstream, Embraer, and Challengers. In particular, with seat design and trim”.

The who’s who of aircraft seating

According to Technavio, the leading five commercial vendors for aircraft seating are Aviointeriors, Geven, RECARO, Rockwell Collins (B/E Aerospace), and Zodiac Aerospace. These companies and smaller outliers offer an array of designs that employ high-tech equipment that also meets FAA requirements. It’s a long process from prototype development to certification and then manufacturing.

Some aircraft seats even have an afterlife. Air France has partnered with French company Bilum to recover seating materials and upcycle them into bags and accessories.

Featured photo by urbazon/Getty Images.

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