Making Airline Travel Feel Less like Torture

By McGinn, Daniel | Newsweek, March 24, 2008 | Go to article overview

Making Airline Travel Feel Less like Torture


McGinn, Daniel, Newsweek


Byline: Daniel McGinn; With Ashley Harris

Carriers are installing ever-more-cushy seats to keep their biggest-spending customers flying.

To the average passenger, an airline seat is a cramp-inducing, ill-fitting device that's the closest most of us will ever come to receiving torture. But to Glenn Johnson, an airline seat can be a thing of elegance. Johnson, a graduate of London's Royal College of Art, is the chief designer at B/E Aerospace, one of the leading suppliers of airline seating. In his office--where visitors must sit in prototype airline seats, which he uses instead of office chairs--he clicks through a portfolio of seat sketches. He talks excitedly of his vision for revolutionary kinds of new seats--comfortable, functional, even beautiful. "We're trying to follow what Apple has done with MP3 players and consumer electronics," he says. "Why can't we become the Apple of the aircraft industry?"

It's a lofty goal, but the time may be right. Airlines have embarked on a wave of upgrades, many of which include innovative new kinds of seating. Most of this inventiveness is confined to premium-class cabins, particularly on overseas flights. But even back in coach, airlines are beginning to order a new generation of seats that are lighter (to save on fuel) and slightly more comfortable. "You're seeing a little bit of an arms race," says Matthew Daimler, founder of SeatGuru.com, a Web site that reviews airline seats for comfort. "Once you sit in a good seat, it becomes really addictive." This trend is benefiting suppliers like B/E, where revenue grew 49 percent, to $1.68 billion, in 2007.

This wave of redesign follows decades of slow evolution. When Jim Hadden entered the industry in 1965, seats were constructed of steel, aluminum and thick cushions. "They were massive--think of the big chair in your living room," says Hadden, now American Airlines' manager of cabin design. During the '70s and '80s, airlines shifted to thinner cushions (to save space) and all-aluminum frames (to reduce weight), but the biggest change in seating was in the positioning: to squeeze in more passengers, airlines decreased the "pitch," or distance between seats, until some carriers allocated just a kneecap-busting 29 inches. Business-class seats were roomier but nothing fancy.

That began to change around 2000. To help transoceanic business-class fliers get more shut-eye, British Airways introduced the first lie-flat seat. To help fliers maneuver them, suppliers began installing motors and electronic controls. To enhance privacy, they created "mini-pods." Fliers loved them, but for airlines they created challenges, since they take up far more floor space. So designers at B/E began obsessing over LOPAs, an industry acronym for "layout of passenger arrangement."

To cram in more seats, designers began repositioning them so they no longer faced the front of the plane. In 2000 British Airways unveiled a new business class with some aft-facing seats, and in 2003 Virgin Atlantic opted for a "herringbone" pattern, with seats positioned diagonally (passengers' feet point toward aisles). …

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