Are you sitting down right now? What’s your seat do?
It’s a strange question. You probably don’t spend a lot of time thinking about your seat as long as it’s comfortable enough. But you likely spend a lot of your time using it. When you’re on an airplane, you almost exclusively sit. And in a world with limited space and an increasing push for an integrated, connected experience, that is an opportunity.
That isn’t lost on companies. So, while you don’t spend a lot of time thinking about your seat, somewhere somebody does.
That’s why Boeing and Adient went in together on a joint seating venture early this year. That’s why Rockwell Collins spent $8.6 billion acquiring B/E Aerospace to form its Interior Systems business last year. The seat is becoming more than just a place to sit.
“The future of the seat, as we see it, is essentially a node in the overall connected aircraft strategy,” said Michael Kuehn, president of connectivity systems and certification for Astronics Corporation.
Seats are getting smarter and more involved. They used to just be a thing to sit on, shipped in from a manufacturer to be bolted into place. At the high end, the primary concern was passenger comfort, imparting a feeling of opulence through choice of materials. On the economy end, airlines and OEMs concerned themselves with maximizing space, fitting as many passengers as possible into a plane without sacrificing too much comfort to keep fares low and margins high.
Those things still matter; Recaro CEO Mark Hiller says airlines “need lightweight seats in order to reduce fuel consumption” and “search for modular seats to ensure individual adaptation” because of the desire to increase passenger density. But other things matter now, too.
Companies started maximizing on the space they had at their disposal by putting headset jacks in armrests and power outlets between seats. Seatback infotainment screens were implemented in first class then migrated back to coach. Wi-Fi and personal devices have changed what passengers want and demand from their flying experience, and airlines take note.
According to Astronics VP Mike Hettich, some airlines are abandoning in-seat systems altogether to facilitate personal devices. Not only does that ensure that passengers have their preferred content available to them, but also “there is an additional benefit in the reduction in aircraft weight with BYOD (bring-your-own-device) systems that reduces fuel consumption.”
Facilitating a BYOD model entails providing charging solutions and reliable Wi-Fi. Astronics offers power solutions for built-in or BYOD options based on what airlines want, but Hettich said that he expects more to start going in the latter direction. He also expects that the current EmPower option the company offers, which is moving primarily from traditional power outlet to USB, to further shift USB Type-C outlets as that becomes the dominant port for phones and computers.
Kuehn said that another area that Astronics expects passenger demand to dictate change is the location of power outlets. Right now, he said, they aren’t always in the most convenient locations, but as customers adjust to consider them a necessity, they will want them somewhere accessible. The challenge there is that “airlines are opposed to the schedules and cost involved in working with the seat OEMs for TSO (technical standard order) updates required to support custom and convenient outlet installation locations.”
Adient said it predicts that as the automotive industry embraces autonomous technology over the next couple years, it will sync up more with aviation, and “the entire experience becomes centered on seating.” It also anticipates vehicle seating will change to match business class seating in terms of configuration rather than the current trend of all passengers facing forward.
Recaro, which provides seating for both the automotive and aviation industry, sees stiffer boundaries between mobilities segments.
CEO Hiller said that the company has taken features like warmth and massage function from automotive seating to implement on planes, but that “possibilities are limited” because of the strict regulatory guidelines with certification as well as the different economies of scale and available materials. Not everything can be transferred when the conversation is so different. “In our industry, every milligram counts, especially as the trend goes to ultra-long-haul flights like Perth to London,” he said.
To Adient’s point, however, Hiller did note that the automotive industry has shown interest in learning from the aviation industry because the future of cars with autonomous driving opens up new possibilities for car “cabins.”
As far as airplanes, Recaro has an optional near-field communication (NFC) reader on some of their seats. For the CL6710 business-class seat, which is on Boeing 777 series planes in service to Lufthansa and 787-9s and Airbus A330-900 neos in service to TAP Portugal, Recaro provides a compatible app. Downloaded to a personal device, the app lets them control settings such as lighting, temperature and massage function, and settings can be saved between trips.
Recaro’s most interesting seat innovations may be those that don’t directly impact the passenger.
In an attempt to help maximize reliability and maintenance costs, the German company has developed intelligent functionality that relays diagnostic information to ground personnel to aid in assessment and predictive maintenance. Recaro also says this can eliminate the need for visual inspection and pre-calculated maintenance intervals.
The company wants to extend this functionality to sensors that show the crew whether seat-backs are upright and tray tables are locked in position, possibly saving everyone from that flight attendant speech they can recite by heart.
Further off, Hiller said, there is even the possibility for seat sensors that monitor the condition of passengers, allowing the airline to adapt service accordingly.
Rockwell Collins, through its B/E Aerospace-comprised Interior Systems business, recently announced the launch of a new business class seat, which is where much of the innovation starts. With deliveries to launch customer Oman Air occurring over the next four years, Rockwell Collins pitches the Air Rest seat as giving “passengers total control of their environment without the worry of other passengers intruding into their space.” The company said it focused on “kinematics” to maximize passenger comfort in the Air Rest seats with a cradle-style recline.
There’s no telling whether cradle-style reclining or passenger health monitoring sensors, or even a lighting app will ever make its way to widespread use or be embraced as an expectation for commercial passengers. If it is, it’s hard to say what new innovation will have replaced it in business class, on niche airlines and in the minds of engineers focused on connecting every bit of your flight experience. But rest assured, as you sit there in your seat: someone somewhere is drawing up plans on how it could be more effective at what it does. GCA