Skinny genes: shrinking the weight of economy class seats?

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Seeking to quench airlines' unending thirst for ultra-lightweight seating solutions, manufacturers are bringing a new wave of slim economy-class seats to market.

They have pared down thickness and carved out additional "living space" to produce slim seats that represent near the zenith of what can be accomplished to save on weight while preserving passenger comfort.

"People have worked at it and worked at it and come closer and closer to reaching the ultimate in slim seats. We're pretty darn close," says aircraft interiors consultant Vern Alg.


A prototype of Panasonic's Integrated Smart Monitor with Weber's slim economy seat. Picture: Panasonic 
"Passenger comfort has not been compromised nor has reliability. There are stress points on seats like tray tables and seatbacks that take a lot of wear and, in the past, taking weight out compromised reliability. But with the new composite materials and new lightweight metals, manufacturers have been able to take weight out while maintaining reliability." Alg adds: "Through really good design efforts, they've enabled the comfort to remain the same or to actually improve."

The slim "phenomenon" has been a work in progress for several years, notes Airbus head of aircraft interiors marketing Bob Lange. "For the past eight or nine years, seat manufacturers have step-by-step been improving the living space of the seat - the room for your knees and shins. It used to be that seat pitch was 32in [81.3cm] and would give you knee room of 29in because the rest of that space was taken up by the thickness of the back rest, tray table and literature pocket. Slimline designs have been gradually putting less and less material in that space so you gain it back in new room," he says.

"Between the first generation of slim seats and the second generation, you typically saw knee room being improved by anywhere from three quarters of an inch to 1.5in, depending on what your benchmark was. With the latest generation, what I call the third generation, we're seeing the living space improved again with a half inch to three quarters of an inch of additional space."

These advances allow carriers to offer increased legroom for passengers even with a relatively short seat pitch, while at the same time enhancing capacity with an additional row of seats. Among the new breed of highly regarded slim seats for long-range flights is Recaro's Comfort Line CL3620, "which won the 2009 Crystal Cabin award for these very things", notes Alg.

The CL3620, which like its predecessor the CL3610 boasts a unique single-beam design, is being considered by Boeing to be included in the 787 catalogue, and is in line to be offered in the Airbus A350 catalogue, along with economy-class seats from B/E Aerospace and Zodiac Group unit Weber Aircraft. Neither airframer is permitting customers to deviate from the economy-class seats on offer in their catalogues for these two aircraft types.

THE NEXT FRONTIER
With "slim and lightweight" now the accepted rule for economy-class seats, the industry is asking: "What's next for the sector?"

The answer will be on full display at this month's Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg, where a new level of collaboration between seat makers and in-flight entertainment hardware manufacturers will be evident, and where suppliers will demonstrate how they are bringing value-added functionality and flexibility to their slimmed-down designs.

Intending to make a big splash at the show is in-flight entertainment and connectivity (IFEC) giant Panasonic Avionics, which has been working with B/E, Recaro and Weber to bring to market an ambitious product that seamlessly integrates slim seats with lightweight, touchscreen IFEC - contained in a shroud assembly that clips off easily for quick maintenance and installation - for a truly cohesive IFEC seat design.

A prototype of Panasonic's so-called Integrated Smart Monitor - formerly known as Fusion - coupled with Weber's lightweight slim economy-class seat "5751" was unveiled at the World Airline Entertainment Association (WAEA) conference and exhibition in Palm Springs, California in October 2009.

Since then, Panasonic and seat suppliers have been putting "lots of meat on the bones" of the project, says Panasonic Avionics executive director of corporate sales and marketing Neil James. The company has moved from offering 7in and 9in monitors and settled on a standard 9in monitor for coach class. "There will be larger sizes for the premium economy market because airlines will want to differentiate that environment", says James.

So far, Panasonic is "pretty sure we've taken 4lb [1.8kg] out of the seat" on the IFE side alone, says James, noting that the firm is targeting an additional weight savings of 225g (8oz). "That represents a lot in terms of weight reduction on a Boeing 737, but just think about how much that equates to on an Airbus A380. When you couple this with the super lightweight seats, where seat makers are taking out weight with carbonfibre and other cushion innovations, the savings are huge."

Commenting on the Integrated Smart Monitor, Nigel Goode, co-founder of premier interiors design consultancy Priestmangoode, says: "Basically they [Panasonic] are doing just what everybody thinks they should have been doing a long time ago, making a very thin screen. Once you start to really squeeze the size, it frees lots more space for other things."

B/E, Recaro and Weber are all expected to showcase versions of integrated IFEC seats on the floor of the Aircraft Interiors Expo.

Panasonic has also fielded "lots of interest from other seat vendors and we're entertaining those", says James, but its priority is to initially work with these three suppliers.

Italian seat manufacturer Geven, for example, "had a meeting with Panasonic and they obviously have no problem with involving other seat manufacturers", says Geven technical director Fabio Liccardo.

He says the firm plans to offer its customers "the possibility of integrating" with the Panasonic Integrated Smart Monitor on future programmes. Several as-yet undisclosed carriers have already signed up as customers for the Integrated Smart Monitor, reveals James. Production will begin in the first quarter of 2011.

SETTING THE STANDARD
By collaborating with seat makers and designers on a relatively standard solution for the cabin before an airline even places its aircraft order, Panasonic and others are helping to pave the way for a sea change in how the business of aircraft interiors and IFEC is carried out. "Every­thing doesn't have to be designed in isolation. It can all be designed early on to create a total homerun product if you do it properly," says James, noting that the design language used to create the Integrated Smart Monitor is being extended across all four cabin classes.

Panasonic is not alone in its efforts. Weber Aircraft president Adri Ruiter says that, in addition to Panasonic, the seat maker has IFE integration projects in the works with Thales.

"The airline picks the IFE and we try to make the best possible integration. What we've seen with Panasonic is they've come to us early and we work with them on this integrated package. If you do it together, you respect each other's limitations and challenges. You can do so much better as a team," says Ruiter.

Weber's fellow Zodiac unit Sicma Aero Seat is also bringing its own "seat integrated technology" or SiT to market, with Royal Jordanian set to be launch customer, says Ruiter.

Such collaboration is among the drivers behind the WAEA's recent move to broaden its scope by rebranding as the Airline Passenger Experience (APEX) group."Clearly the industry needs to have seat vendors working more closely with the IFEC vendors. That has been talked about for 20 years. And when they do work together, some brilliance is created," says Emirates vice-president corporate communications, product, publishing digital and events Patrick Brannelly, who also serves as the president of the WAEA.

Consultant Alg believes the industry is wise to move towards greater standardisation, which makes manufacturing and ongoing support "much more effective", while maintaining the ability to modify to support the mission of individual airlines.

"For example, Ryanair and Emirates are on two ends of the spectrum, but it would be nice if they could have a lot of shared parts and shared components and still have a branded seat that meets their mission needs," says Alg.

Airbus's Lange says the European airframer is "still seeing an appetite from leading carriers to nevertheless drive for a degree of differentiation, but I would say that when it comes to economy class overall, the airlines are globally more wary of the risk profile they are taking if they are pushing differentiation too far. We're starting to see a little bit of a shift towards differentiation on softer elements, such as cabin service, IFE content, that kind of thing."

That is not to suggest that innovation is not still happening in the economy-class sector.

Air New Zealand recently unveiled its Skycouch to much acclaim. The slimline Skycouch is a designed row of three seats engineered to create a lie-flat experience by the extension of a padded foot rest that rotates from a perpendicular position to parallel, thereby expanding the seat cushion width to accommodate a sleeping position. The airline plans to introduce the new seats on its first Boeing 777-300ER, due for delivery later this year.

For single-aisle aircraft, Geven is using a slim seat as the basis for its new "convertible" seat, whereby a row of three economy-class seats can be transformed into a business class solution by retracting the middle seat's foldable armrests and converting its backrest into a centre table.

Slovenia's Adria Airways is among the carriers to select this particular convertible seat, but "many customers are asking about this", says Geven's Liccardo. "We are focusing our attention on lightweight seats that, at the same time, will be inviting for the customer."