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Interesting times

Now under new ownership, ACRO aircraft seating is looking forward to a growing market. Ian Harbison reports
 

One of the highlights of Acro Aircraft Seating’s 10th anniversary in 2017 was its acquisition by the Zhejiang Science and Technology Investment Company for £55 million. Alan McInnes, SVP Sales, says one of the Chinese company’s subsidiaries, Tiancheng Controls (TC), a manufacturer of seats for construction vehicles, trucks and cars, was looking to enter the booming airline industry in the region. However, the different requirements and regulatory hurdles in aviation meant that acquisition was an easier route. The timing was also right for the Acro owners, a combination of the three original founders, Chris Brady, Andy Lawler and David Starkey, and venture capital company BGF, which acquired a £7.8 million minority stake in November 2015.

 

He says it has been business as usual after the takeover, with the operation still being run from the UK, but a tangible sign of the new ownership has been the establishment in Shanghai in 4Q18 of a new 50,000m² facility; under existing Acro EASA Part 21 and AS9100D quality accreditation approvals, the process having been supervised by UK Quality and Shanghai Production teams. Perhaps another sign was the first ever contract award from a Chinese airline in 2018, when low cost carrier Spring Airlines became the launch customer Series 3 ST seat, to be fitted to 45 Airbus A320 and 15 A321 aircraft, the largest line fit order ever received by Acro. The seat includes a fixed 24°pre-reclined seatback, enhanced table size and a synthetic leather seat cover. This was followed by a contract to supply another Chinese carrier with its Series 6 Economy Class seat.

 

He says the business plan is to launch one product a year, although 2018 saw first deliveries of the Series 6 seat to Air New Zealand and Series 7 (along with Series 6 for a mixed configuration) to Primera and Titan Airways.

 

Primera unfortunately ceased flying in October 2018 after six shipsets had been delivered but, as the Series 7 was not line fit, the aircraft were delivered in an all economy class Series 6 layout. This meant Series 7 seats were owned by Primera, Series 6 by the lessors. Lessors have transferred some aircraft with a mixed configuration to other operators such as Bamboo Airways in Vietnam, so there is now some support business. There must also be some Series 7 seats sitting somewhere.

 

Series 6 has a highly curved composite seatback that creates a bucket shape around the passenger and provides 2in of extra space for the passenger at knee level. Acro refers to this as Extra-Spatial Design and it has been incorporated across the product range. It allows a 6ft 3in tall passenger to easily stretch their legs without touching the seat in front, even at a 28in pitch. It has a maximum recline of 9°/ 4in controlled by a lever mounted on the front spar of the seat, rather than a button in the sidearm. This is more efficient and improves serviceability.

 

Baseline seat covers are synthetic leather, there is a sliding single leaf seatback table with cup recess, upper literature pocket and Amsafe seatbelts. As well as customisable covers and trim and finish, there is a wide range of options, including a fixed recline, four-way headrest, lower literature pocket, 10in IFE monitor, Astronics USB-A, an upper literature pocket and a PED holder.

 

The seat is delivered as a triple unit. For the Airbus A320 Family, there are two seat widths available; the standard size is 18.3in but there is also a 19.1 in centre seat. For the Boeing 737, 17.8in is the widest in class.

 

Titan Airways, the London-Stansted based charter and lease specialists, mixed Series 3 and Series 7 seats on two Airbus A321 aircraft. One of the aircraft is configured with 218 Series 3 in Economy Class, the other with 220 seats, all at 29in seat pitch. However, the company often needs split class cabin options, especially for sports teams, and it has acquired 44 Series 7 Regional Business Class seats. These can be fitted at the front of the cabin in a 2+2 layout at 44in pitch and include in-seat USB power, movable headrests, leg and foot rests. In this configuration, there are 100 Economy Class seats.

 

Series 7 uses a modular design, and so can be fitted to a wide range of aircraft types; including the A320 Family, A330, Boeing 737 and 777. Designed as a double unit, with seatback recline and seatpan articulation, it has a centre console with personal stowage, in-built water bottle storage, cocktail table and a four-way headrest. The seat covers are synthetic leather. In-seat power has been added with an Astronics 110v and USB-A Combo and Amsafe seatbelts are fitted. Options include IFE monitors up to 13.3in with tilt of 15° and an extended Privacy Wing with integrated reading light.

 

Seat widths vary across the A320 Family (21.73in), A330 (18.5in), Boeing 737 (21.7in) and 777 (18.5in).

 

Both are line fit at Airbus.

 

Development work on the Series 6 produced the HD long haul economy class variant, aimed initially at the Airbus A330. It is in the catalogue and offerable for aircraft in a 3-3-3 configuration, and the LC variant, for low cost carriers, which offers a width combination of 17in/18in/17in across the triple unit, reducing weight and providing a wider aisle for quicker turnarounds. He adds that the LC has an unidentified launch customer, with more news to come in 3Q19.

 

Of course, the low cost market has always been an important market for Acro, from Jet2, the very first customer, until today. In fact, the 100th Series 3 shipset was delivered to Jet 2 in Q2 2018.

 

The most recent order came from Mango Airlines, the Johannesburg based low cost carrier, for the Series 3 Ultra Economy Class seat for two Boeing 737-800 aircraft, and is a repeat order, a total of 15 shipsets having been delivered since 2014.

 

McInnes is keen to point out that the customer base goes beyond low cost carriers. “Flag carriers”, he notes, “are vital to help the company grow.” In April, Etihad announced an upgrade programme to its Airbus A320/321 fleet, which are used for short haul regional services and within five hours of flight from Abu Dhabi. These are being fitted with Series 6. They are not being fitted with IFE screens as Etihad has decided to remove them as part of the refresh programme. Instead, the Panasonic eXW system will stream content directly to passengers, which means the seat incorporates a custom designed PED holder.

 

Another recent flag carrier customer is Finnair, which ordered the Series 3ST+ for a cabin refresh of 12 ATR 72 aircraft operated on its behalf by Nordic Regional Airlines. Also known as Norra, it is a 60/40 joint venture between Finnair and Danish Air Transport providing services in Northern Finland. This seat version is highly customised, including an enhanced leather literature pocket, coat hook, leather seat covers and bespoke cushions. The seats are at 31in pitch.

 

The Series 3 has evolved over the years – customers include Allegiant Air, Frontier Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, Spirit Airlines and VIVA Air and aircraft include A320 Family, ATR 42/72, Boeing 717 and Saab 340 – with the latest version being the ST and ST+ (the latter having a 37.5% bigger table).

 

Returning to the Chinese facility, he says the company’s strategy has changed, the US having previously been the preferred choice for a second manufacturing plant, to be close to Boeing. Apart from the TC involvement, all the market forecasts point to Asia as having the highest aviation growth rates in the future. In particular, he says there is a huge number of new aircraft in service that means the retrofit market is yet to develop, and this will be the primary focus in Shanghai.

 

This is expected in the next few years and additional sales effort is now in place in Shanghai and Singapore. Production staff have also been trained and the facility is ready to go, but it will be a gradual ramp up. Although there are orders from two Chinese airlines, with some aircraft for Spring Airlines to be delivered from the Airbus Tianjin assembly line, he says line fit approval is some way off.

 

“This reflects TC’s commitment,” he says, as they are willing to wait until the market develops. At the same time there have been discussions between the UK and China on possible production and supply chains benefits that Acro can learn from. He explains that Acro designs and delivers seats using its supply chain to provide components for assembly.  Although the automotive production lines are much larger and faster with use of robotics, there may still be opportunities for optimisation.

 

The company is extremely flexible when it comes to production rates, being able to respond to surges in demand by introducing a temporary second shift system and this is running at the moment to satisfy the Etihad refit programme, where there is no concern over hangar slots as the work is being carried out in-house in Abu Dhabi. “This is often a holding factor in refit programmes,” he comments.

 

In conclusion, the seating industry has changed so much since Acro was founded, and the barriers to entry are so much higher, that it would be impossible to set up a business with the same level of funding. On the other hand, with TC support, the future seems pretty positive.


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