UK seat manufacturer Acro is to unveil a “close-to-final” version of its latest premium economy product at AIX after a “soft launch” at last year’s show.

Innovares, says chief executive Neil Cairns, adopts a “unique approach to some of the main compromises made in the premium economy cabin” and is the latest contender in what he calls a “growth engine” market for airlines and seat manufacturers.

Cairns: Premium economy is a growth engine in seating

Source: Aero

Cairns: Premium economy is a growth engine in seating

While Acro has no customers for the product yet, Cairns says the Northamptonshire-based company is “aiming for very innovative and forward-thinking airlines for the launch of this product”, which offers an 11in recline, the ability to install an up to 15in video monitor, and “an extraordinarily spacious footwell for maximum legroom”.

Acro, which was acquired for £55 million ($70 million) by Chinese automotive seating manufacturer ZTC in 2017, has delivered a premium economy programme before, although its Series 7, introduced in 2018, was pitched at what it called the narrowbody domestic business class segment. Cairns says production of the Series 7 has been “paused…to make significant improvements to the seat to really deliver value to an airline in terms of comfort, aesthetics, robustness and reliability”.

Cairns, who previously ran seating plants for B/E (now Collins Aerospace) is the USA and Northern Ireland, is entering his fifth year at Acro after joining just before the pandemic in early March 2020. His initial priority was navigating the Covid-19 slowdown and relocating the business from its former factory near London’s Gatwick airport to a bigger site in Crick in the English East Midlands. However, he says the focus for the past two years has been on ramping up production, diversifying the product mix, and attracting new airline clients, including in the widebody segment.

Acro, which was founded in 2007 by former Virgin Atlantic executive Chris Brady (who now runs premium seating start-up Unum), has a customer base that is all-narrowbody and largely skewed to Airbus, although its biggest single customer currently is 737 operator Allegiant with which Acro won its first Boeing line-fit deal in 2022, to supply 50 shipsets of its Series 6 lightweight fixed-back seat.

The company’s output is split half and half between original equipment (OE) and retrofit. Other major customers include UK leisure airline Jet2, one of Acro’s original clients, which last year selected the Series 9 for 98 new Airbus A320neo and A321neo aircraft. US low-cost airline Spirit has ordered Acro seats in the past, while outside the budget segment, Air New Zealand and Etihad have also been customers, although representing relatively modest volumes.

At AIX last year, Acro announced a deal to be the preferred OE seating supplier for Deutsche Aircraft’s D328eco, a re-engined and longer version of the 40-passenger, out-of-production Dornier 328, that the German start-up is hoping to certificate by 2026.

Also at last year’s show, Acro unveiled a widebody version of its Series 9 – designed to go 10-abreast on an Airbus A350 – as part of a strategy to break into the twin-aisle market. While Cairns says the Series 9HD is the “result of a significant number of requests from OEMs and airlines for a high-density solution Series 9 seat”, Acro has yet to announce a customer.

Cairns says Acro will more than double its output this year compared with 2023, with “further growth envisioned next year”. He adds: “Last year we saw airlines really starting to come back, but this year it is picking up more. Thankfully, our parent company supported us through Covid and allowed us to invest and we are seeing the results of that now.”

Acro’s operation in Crick, which employes around 50 engineers and 80 shopfloor workers, is vertically integrated, with design, assembly, testing and some machining done on site, says Cairns. However, dress covers and composites come from ZTC and its suppliers in China (arriving in Hamburg from Shanghai by train, before being transported to the UK by truck).

He says the company’s biggest selling points are its “agility and flexibility”, noting that “we can be more adaptive on lower volumes than the big three” – Collins, Recaro, and Safran. “We can redesign a seat for 10 shipsets, for example,” he says.

The recyclability of its products is another advantage. “As much as 99.8% of our Series 9 can be recycled, which we see as a huge USP as the industry pivots to sustainability,” he remarks.

As for its aspirations in the twin-aisle market, Cairns admits that “a lot of airlines in this segment are naturally conservative and will stick with the big three”. However, he says: “The Series 9 is recognized as a stand-out product on narrowbodies. Now we want to do the same on widebodies.”