Every few years a news story breaks that suggests a particular airline or airframer is ready to make a bold move in the aircraft interiors space by adopting standing-seat configurations for short-hop flights or economy-class stacked sleepers for long-haul travel. And every few years a bevy of naysayers emerges to tell the world that radical seating designs are nothing more than "half-baked" ideas or "pie in the sky" fantasies.
In recent months, eyebrows were raised by Spring Airlines' admission that the Chinese low-cost carrier has held initial talks with Airbus to add standing-seats on its A320 narrowbodies to increase by 40% the number of passengers it can carry.
But sceptical curiosity turned to disbelief when Ryanair chief executive Michael O'Leary - known for his often outrageous publicity stunts - quickly wrestled the headlines from Spring by announcing that the Irish low-cost carrier was looking at vertical seating for its Boeing 737 narrowbodies.
Ryanair also launched a poll to gauge demand for the solution, which it says would allow passengers to travel - for free - in "a secure upright position on short flights of approximately 1h".
While Ryanair succeeded in grabbing attention with its announcement, the resulting media circus did not create an atmosphere for serious dialogue about the viability of standing-seats.
Airbus and Boeing say they are not contemplating standing-seat configurations. But many interiors experts are now coming forward to suggest standing-seats - and their horizontal brothers, stacked sleepers - should not be viewed as obscure ideas lurking outside the realm of possibility. And many of these same specialists say Asia could prove the launching pad for one or both.
STAND BY FOR TAKE-OFF
With respect to standing-seats, "everybody in the industry has thought about this. It's not a new idea. We just haven't come up with an answer yet," says Vern Alg, an aircraft interiors consultant who previously worked as director, project management at Continental Airlines.
Concepts for stand-up seating have been presented at aviation conferences for years. "Preliminary sketches showed structures reminiscent of vertical spray-tanning booths, fun-fair joy-ride cabs, funicular gondolas or avant-garde ski-lifts. Clearly, the technical requirements to develop stand-up seats suitable for use on aircraft would be extremely complicated," says Jennifer Coutts Clay, interiors expert and author of Jetliner Cabins.
The computerised graphic most recently used by Ryanair to depict vertical seating showed passengers leaning against a padded backboard and held in place with a sort of harness. Spring is said to be looking at barstool-like seating with safety straps.
Many problems must be resolved and questions answered before such contraptions find their way on to actual aircraft, but Coutts Clay says the main topic of discussion "has always been the potential testing processes necessary to achieve certification status for high-density-type seating options".
Those requirements are getting stiffer. While many newly delivered aircraft are already equipped with seats capable of withstanding a 16g dynamic longitudinal acceleration in a crash and configured to limit the risk of severe head injury, the US Federal Aviation Administration this year will make it a requirement.
It is not yet clear if a standing-seat design would pass muster with Chinese regulators.
"In principle, the Chinese could do in their country what they wish. But because of their International Civil Aviation Organisation connection, it's not likely to happen unilaterally but would involve the world community figuring out how to do that," says Tecop International president Hans Weber.
Shashank Nigam, chief executive of global airline marketing and branding consultancy SimpliFlying, suggests, however, that state-owned Chinese aircraft manufacturers "looking for an edge" and a possible relationship with successful carriers such as Spring would be wise if they were to consider promoting a standing-seat option.
From a cultural standpoint, Asia may also be more accepting of such designs. "You have customers who are not bothered being seated close to one another," says Alg. "People in the USA have a great deal of difficulty getting into a Tokyo subway, but it's not a problem for the Japanese."
Weber agrees, saying: "Anybody who has travelled in Asia, including highly developed Japan, has personally experienced how much standing up you do and how squeezed in you are, and how you must be prepared for that."
Should Airbus and Boeing explore standing-seats? "Frankly, I think that every supplier has to look at these things because they keep coming up and maybe there is a solution out there," says Alg.
Spring Airlines, for one, appears ready to embrace the concept. Zhang Wuan, an official at the Shanghai carrier who works closely with the chief executive, says: "We are planning to have standing seats." He says that initial discussions "with the Airbus side" have taken place to see if "the safety question" can be addressed. "We want to have it so more people can afford to fly," he adds.
MEETING IN THE MIDDLE
Standing-seats have grabbed headlines. However, a premium design consultancy has struck upon a concept that may attract operators interested in high-density configurations but not the hoopla surrounding vertical seats.
UK-based Design Q, which was instrumental in the design of Virgin Atlantic's acclaimed "Upper Class" seats, envisages a solution that entails a row of inward facing seats on each side of the aircraft plus two back-to-back rows down the middle resulting in a configuration whereby passengers are facing each other.
Design Q's preliminary image, revealed to the world for the first time by Flight International, "shows a generous gap between each of the seats, which could be reduced, but the centre seats are staggered to coincide with the gaps on the outboard seats", says Design Q co-founder Howard Guy.
© Design Q
"The seats, although shown down, will automatically lift like a cinema seat. This too considerably helping flow through. This probably will reduce boarding times, which has a value. It would also save costs on each seat and significantly save weight."
As with standing-seats, the biggest hurdle would be testing 16g on a side facing passenger and determining if extra protective structures might be required, which could entail extra cost and extra weight.
Asian carriers, which are known for being more at the vanguard when it comes to innovation in aircraft interiors, are also "key candidates to be the first to explore" stacked sleeper seats, says Carlos Martinez, the brains behind the Airborne Hotel (Abh) bi-level cabin concept and design, which he says provides sleeper cabin comfort without losing passenger density in the aircraft.
Since 2003, Martinez's designs have been made - and consistently improved - specifically with the Airbus A380 in mind, although he says precise configurations and layouts can be made for the A340, the forthcoming A350 or the Boeing 747, 777 and 787. A physical, full-scale cabin section model of the Abh design/configuration for an A380 premium economy cabin was presented to the public for the first time at this year's Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg. The response was largely positive.
"To our surprise (we expected at least a few), not one person mentioned feeling confined, or ill at ease with their surroundings; instead, they welcomed the prospect of having a certain degree of privacy," says Martinez.
A competing product from engineering company MmillenniumM Group, called the Air Sleeper, is designed for all markets but, like the Abh concept, is particularly focused on a premium economy configuration, which can support a 1.9m (6ft 3in) lie-flat and horizontal experience.
The solution "is very much like most business-class standard seats now around the world with a comparable width, but with about two to three times the number of seats as in conventional business class, thereby reducing cost per seat for the airlines", says MmillenniumM Group chief executive A I "Indi" Rajasingham.
He adds: "A business-class type seat that takes up half the space can be priced at a little over half the conventional business price and still make more money for the airline - this is the space where the emerging Asian market tsunami lies."
Malaysian low-cost, long-haul carrier AirAsia X says it is open to exploring stacked sleeper seats for its newly ordered Airbus A350s. "The timing of the requirements and specifications [that we will] have to lay down for those deliveries I think is going to coincide with further developments in the interiors market and give us the opportunity with that aircraft to explore some of these new options," says Tim Claydon, a director and consultant for the carrier.