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Tougher than old leather

Stephanie Taylor explores how and why companies are replacing traditional textiles and leather in the aircraft cabin with re-engineered high performance materials to improve the passenger experience

As with most facets of the aircraft cabin, the majority of innovative design in leather and textiles tends to be exhibited at the front of the plane.

It follows that we’ve recently heard in detail about the superior quality of the ‘soft leather seating’ in Emirates’ new First Class Suites and the magic of the ‘hand-stitched leather and satin rose gold finishing’ in Qatar’s new Qsuite.

This is all very well, but with global passenger numbers increasing, primarily due to the growing middle classes in the Asia-Pacific region and India, most new flyers will be travelling in economy. What about the materials they will come into contact with on their journey?

For Gary Doy, Director of Pitch Aircraft Seating, the most pertinent question regarding textiles and leather in the aircraft cabin is regarding the value airlines place on the perceived quality and branding of economy class seating.

Doy explains: “The marketplace is highly competitive, with cost, weight, durability and availability being the main drivers behind an airline’s purchase decision. Is there really an interest in the market to push for higher perceived quality, or have we reached an acceptable plateau with no real need for improvement?”

With this question in mind, Pitch Aircraft Seating embarked upon ‘Project Surface’ with the aim of exploring “high-end surface finishes and branding on the PF3000 economy seat”. Changes will be restricted to material finishes and the dress cover design, with the results of the four month endeavour due to be showcased on a standard PF3000 triple-seat at Pitch’s stand as part of this year’s Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg.  

While the project is still in progress, Doy asserts he is seeing the trend for more printing on dress covers. However, he acknowledges this will always be a limited market due to aircraft leasing, which limits more permanent forms of personalisation. Elsewhere, he predicts that fabric will soon come back into popularity, claiming “the market appears to be cyclical, and leather is currently more popular”.

According to Matthew Nicholls, Sales Director of Tapis Corporation, whose products feature in over 100 airlines’ First and Business Class products (including new Emirates Suites), this is certainly the case. Commenting specifically on the airline industry, he attests: “Perhaps as little as three years ago, the split was around 50/50 for leather and fabric, and within the leather split it was around 80/20 in favour of full leather. In the last few years, particularly in the US, this has changed to 80/20 in favour of synthetic leather.

“We’re also now starting to see the European airlines begin to change. Most likely, Asia-Pacific will be next and the Middle East the last,” adds Nicholls. “Probably the biggest reason for the change is the acceptance of synthetic materials as high performance materials as opposed to the classic PVC perspective that customers have.

“With the advent and acceptance of other high performance materials such as Cordura, Climalite, Gore-Tex and more, there has come the realisation that engineered materials offer significant advantages and at a much lower cost point.”


One such company demonstrating the benefit of high performance materials is E-Leather, which supplies upholstery and cladding for over 150 airlines as well as bus and rail companies. Its eponymous product is made from natural leather off-cuts, trimmings and shavings, and claims to be a preferable alternative to real leather, faux leather and fabrics. >>


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