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Airlines

Back of the bus

Airlines are paying more attention to the needs of economy class passengers, which is influencing seat design. Mario Pieronon reports
 

Economy class seats

Economy class seats are characterised by a significant divide between long haul and short haul operations in terms of passenger and airline requirements. “The purpose of a widebody, long haul aircraft with an average flight time of six to eight hours brings forward a specific set of criteria and features for considerations that are different when compared to a single-aisle, low cost carrier with an average flight time of two to three hours,” says Alastair Hamilton, Vice President of sales and marketing for interiors at Collins Aerospace. “We identify those needs with our customers and meet their requirements. From our customers we see demand for passenger comfort, cabin optimisation, and increased passenger experience. We work very closely with our customers to continuously develop and install new features and elements into a cabin.”

 

New trends

Hamilton says that there is not one seating trend that is taking over a major section of the market. “Demand for any seat is the culmination of several business objectives. These decisions are dependent on the airline, the aircraft type and aircraft purposes (for example, short haul versus long haul, lower cost carriers, etc.). For short haul, the USB port and PED holders are becoming a ‘must’. At the same time, recline is becoming less and less important on single aisle aircraft (for routes up to three or four hours of course). Large airlines have also decided to move to no-recline seats for the first time in their history. It might be best to say, as the airlines prefer to highlight, that such new seats are not ‘no-recline’ but rather ‘pre-reclined’ seats where the angle is preset and kept fixed in order to give a balanced comfort to the occupant throughout the entire flight,” says Rodolfo Baldascino, Marketing and Sales Manager at Geven. “Moreover, some of the legacy airlines also went through the barrier of the 28in seat pitch in some cases, and for some aircraft dedicated to specific routes in their network. The overall onboard experience is being enhanced by investing other parts of the cabin (LED lighting, Wi-Fi contents on board, cabin branding).”

 

“We see airlines and passengers interested in a very wide variety of features in economy when it comes to comfort, but most requests tend to be specific to sleeping comfort,” says Chris Buckner, Director of Product Management at RECARO Aircraft Seating. “There is a growing demand in the market for pre-reclined seats, especially on shorter haul operations. While recline is a great way for customers to control their comfort, especially for sleeping, there are a lot of ergonomic innovations that RECARO focusses on to ensure passengers are equally comfortable without it. Innovations in pre-recline positions and optimisation of the seat ́s ergonomics for one fixed position also have benefits in creating the highest level of comfort for passengers as well.”

 

Short haul

The airlines of the Lufthansa group are among those that have opted for ‘pre-reclined’ seats on short and medium haul routes, thereby offering to their passengers a ‘new flight experience’. “The Group has now received its first A321neo in Frankfurt, which will be operated by Lufthansa. New on board: a new, improved seat for an even more comfortable travel experience, which is jointly introduced by the three network airlines, Lufthansa, SWISS and Austrian Airline,” says Lufthansa. “The comfortable full-structure upholstery of the seat and the backrest ensure a noticeably pleasant sitting experience thanks to ergonomic pressure distribution. Due to the innovative slimming of the backrest, guests are able to enjoy even more personal space. This is achieved by the newly developed horizontal arrangement of the literature bag above the table. In addition, travelling is not only more comfortable during the flight, but also during taxiing, take off and landing: instead of the previous 12 degrees during these three phases, guests travel constantly comfortably with a 20-degree inclination of the backrest; business class guests can even adjust the backrest to 26 degrees during the cruise.”

 

In the new cabin configuration each row of seats has its own USB ports in the current and future standard, which for the first time in the Lufthansa Group will also be available on short haul flights. “In future, Lufthansa Group passengers will also be able to set up their own tablets more conveniently. A special column has been inserted into the table to facilitate the tablet holder,” says Lufthansa.

 

“Customer feedback has been incorporated into the design of the seat. We received a lot of positive feedback on the new features. We are therefore convinced that the new seat and the modern ambience of the cabin will further improve the travel comfort of our guests,” says Paul Estoppey, Head of Product Management Cabin at Lufthansa Group Hub Airlines.

 

The innovative technological solutions that economy class seats offer, which is the ability to provide connectivity and power needs to several devices at one time, is something that passengers have driven, according to Hamilton. “Customers can stay connected and entertained just as they would on the ground,” he says.

 

Long haul

“In addition to the advantages for customers, the focus of development was also aimed at reducing weight and maintenance costs. After several preliminary talks, customer tests and quality audits, the Italian manufacturer Geven clearly won the contract for the production of the seats. On long haul flights, Lufthansa continues to mainly use Recaro’s CL3520 seat in economy class, including USB ports, ergonomic pressure distribution and PC power plugs,” says Lufthansa.

 

On long haul aircraft the economy seats have to be more generous in space and comfort and also accommodate the largest possible screens. “Long haul seats are fully connected with optimised space for all devices as well as for amenities, literature and personal belongings. It is a demanding challenge that the seat manufacturers face,” says Baldascino. “New comfort solutions are also always under analysis and studies such as new and different cradling systems to optimise the seating position during ‘rest mode’ in a flight lasting more than eight hours.”

 

Passenger experience improvement

Airlines and manufacturers are responding in many other ways to passenger requirements, from improvements to soft goods, like pillows and blankets, to improved lighting solutions coming from the original equipment manufacturers (OEM). “On the seating side of things, RECARO has been a trend setter for sleeping comfort; most recently developing several improvements to our CL3710 product, focused on sleeping comfort, including upgraded headrests with integrated neck pillows and improved leg support with a seat bottom extension solution,” says Buckner.

 

For an overall improvement of the passenger experience, one big focus has recently been the integration of sensors into the seats. “The concept is to give the airlines a better view into their passenger experience once on board the aircraft. The concepts being developed range from cabin safety during taxiing, take-off and landing, to improving the passenger experience through insights gathered from the available data,” says Buckner.

 

The choice of materials is important when it comes to providing value to passenger experience. According to Hamilton, the choice varies and it is completely sensitive.

 

“Innovative solutions for sure include more and more composite, especially in the backrest. This allows them to reduce the thickness of the backrest while optimising the shape to well accommodate the body of the occupant. Also, new techniques and new materials in the manufacturing of dress covers is helping to increase comfort, having a slimmer backrest and saving weight,” says Baldascino.

 

RECARO is also looking at smart solutions when it comes to materials such as hygienic surfaces or smart fabrics. “These are still in development but can be expected in the near future,” says Buckner.

 

Brand differentiation

Competition among airlines can sometimes be aggressive. One way to deal with competition is to differentiate, and this is particularly possible with seat installations. “Airlines utilise a number of options for branding in their seating products. Everything from colour selections to trim and finish to seat cover designs all play a major role in that. Furthermore, RECARO also has a wide variety of options available on all of our seating solutions that further help airlines customise their product, for example items like in seat power, table holders or even our sleeping comfort features,” says Buckner.

According to Hamilton, brand differentiation is more about the entire cabin atmosphere rather than a singular focus on a seating. “An airline can differentiate itself through several options from something as simple as brand colours throughout the seating material or adapting LED reading lights to illuminate passenger names, seat numbers and aisle signage during boarding, cruising altitude and landing. An airline may choose to support its brand with the addition of a self-serve social zone, like Collins’ M-Flex DuetTM can offer,” he says.

 

The economy class seat per se, except for the trim and finish, can be difficult to customise. “Large airlines can ask a seat manufacturer to design, certify and deliver a seat especially made for them and unique and exclusive on their fleet for a very large number of ship-sets. Thus, in order to increase brand awareness for passengers while in the cabin an airline has to wisely combine seat trim and finish options with cabin lighting, cabin colours and branding elements to distinguish themselves,” concludes Baldascino. “Moreover, the inflight experience of passengers is also impacted by the on board service, online/internet punctuality, boarding and all other points that we all know very well and that most of the time are not under the complete control of an airline.”


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