Since entering the market a decade ago, Acro has made its reputation from supplying mostly no-frills airlines with “simple seats”. But do not make the mistake of calling the UK-based manufacturer a bargain-end upstart. “It may sound like we are a low-cost supplier, but we stand for comfort and an appropriate product fit,” insists chief executive and co-founder Chris Brady. “Our philosophy is comfort, robustness, maintainability, lightweight, price – in that order.”

Brady, a former Virgin Atlantic executive who worked alongside Sir Richard Branson, founded Crawley-based Acro with two colleagues in 2005. They were inspired by an idea for an easy-to-maintain, sturdy, non-recline economy seat, based on the insight that passengers prize personal space over the ability to tilt their seat a few degrees. “The perception is that a fixed-back seat is uncomfortable,” he says. “But what people want is not headrests or being able to recline, but comfort.”

Their initial product in 2007 was the only non-reclinable seat on the market, says Brady, and Acro won its first revenue customer in Jet2, the Leeds Bradford-based leisure carrier. “We had built some prototypes and began trialling it with Jet2,” he says. “It was the first seat designed to be fixed, at a 24° recline.” The trouble was – despite the company having today delivered 90 shipsets to the Boeing 737 and 757 operator – the non-recline seat was slow to catch on in the wider market.

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By 2011, Brady and his partners decided they had to have an alternative offering. So in 2011 they designed a reclinable version and over the next three years orders flowed in, with US carriers Allegiant and Spirit choosing Acro’s new product for retrofit programmes. “They wanted a seat which was as simple as possible, with just a tray that was able to take a soda and a sandwich,” says Brady. “It had to be robust – the tray has just one moving part – and have the lowest possible cost of operation.”

These were Acro’s breakout years, says Brady. Between 2011 and 2014, turnover doubled each year. In 2013 it won its first line-fit deal when Spirit asked Airbus to approve the company’s product for its new A320s. Deliveries began in 2015. This was followed by another major retrofit win, this time with Frontier. Deals with Hawaiian, Thomas Cook and KLM came next. “Perversely,” says Brady, “for a company that so believed in non-reclinable seats, it was a reclinable seat that set us free.”

With the Series 3 and its more complex Series 6 successor now approved as Airbus buyer-furnished equipment, Acro is making between 2,000 and 3,000 seats a month – around three-quarters for the retrofit market, including another big deal with Frontier Airlines. So far, it has produced some 80,000 seats, mostly for the US. At AIX it is due to announce a third line-fit customer, joining Spirit and Allegiant, and Brady is targeting a catalogue agreement with Boeing within three years.

Acro employs a largely outsourced business model, with its 150 staff based in modest-sized premises next to Gatwick airport mostly involved in engineering design and assembly. “Our strategy is that we don’t make anything ourselves beyond seatbelts and one or two other items,” says Brady. “Our supply chain is overwhelmingly UK-based, not because we are buying British per se, but because we can have a relationship. If something goes wrong, we can jump in a car and sort it out.”

Acro’s design engineers are taught to “think furniture, not equipment”, says Brady. “We don’t look at our competitors. We look at simple, iconic furniture like the Charles Eames chair or Mies van der Rohe, which is the chair of choice in posh banks.” These modernist mid-20th century designers produced enduring designs that were extremely comfortable, yet extremely straightforward in their construction, he maintains.

Despite the company having made its name in the low-cost sector, Brady believes that its design philosophy can be extended up the value chain. Acro plans to deliver its first premium economy seat, the Series 7, in December, to an undisclosed customer. “Premium economy is a fast-growing sector of the market,” he notes. Following that will be the Series 8 – a long-haul version of Series 6 – targeted for end of 2018 delivery, with a possible unveiling at AIX next year.

Next on the product strategy map around 2020 is the Series 9, “which takes us back to our roots with a pure fixed-recline seat that will be incredibly light”. This will be pitched largely at Asian carriers, where demand for lightweight economy seats is likely to accelerate, Brady believes. By that time, he hopes, the company will have taken the start-up’s revenues to six figures from £30 million ($37 million) today.

Eventually, Acro is plotting a move into business-class seats and a US assembly facility to take it closer to key customers, but “that is for the 2020s”, says Brady. Despite Acro’s hold in the low-cost carrier market, Brady thinks distinctions with full-service airlines will continue to blur as LCCs target business travellers and full-service airlines rationalise their offerings. “Eventually, everyone will just compete on service,” he says. “So we have to have a philosophy that plays into the long term.”

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Source: Flight International