Why Aren't Airplane Seats More Like the Aeron Chair?

Beginning this fall, every new airliner will feature passenger seats that are the strongest ever, and some will even come equipped with airbags. It's great for safety, but here's an interesting question: Airline seats are clunky—why aren't they more like the Aeron chair?

Aeron chair

Compare the famous Aeron to its office chair predecessors: They are typically heavy, ugly slabs of plastic with fabric coatings that don't adapt to your body shape particularly well, and with posture controls that are often a mystery. Meanwhile Herman Miller's Aeron chair disposes with the fabric over stuffing design and has a light mesh seat stretched over an open frame, making it more adaptable to your body, with easily adjustable posture controls. It's lighter, better looking and is widely regarded as being extremely comfortable.

And then look at the average airline chair. It's a mess of molded plastic parts and metal fixings, with stiff cushions that always seem to dig into your legs in the wrong place, hard armrests that are rarely comfortable, and a distinct lack of posture adjustments. They're clearly designed from some long-ago agreed safety standard that didn't take into account thigh pressure points for deep-vein thrombosis, and haven't been adapted to take advantage of today's modern strong and light materials. It's clearly a design begging to be given the Aeron treatment.

But it probably won't be, for several reasons. The first is regulatory. The new regulations that come into full effect this fall mean that new seats have to withstand accelerations in a crash up to 16 g—much more than the previous 9 g. And that's great for safety, since studies have suggested that stronger seats that are more firmly fixed to the floor will save many a life. But getting a revolutionary new design past the FAA and other global flying bodies is going to be an exercise in fighting an enormous amount of red tape.

Another reason is design inertia. The airline seat is the way it is, and everyone in the industry is familiar with it. There'll be a range of chosen manufacturers, and a whole industry busying itself with replacement fabric coverings and new cushions. Effecting a revolutionary change in that environment is likely to be tricky.

The last reason is cost. Those new safety regulations could be met with a super chair that's built from materials like carbon fiber, covered with a strong Aeron-like mesh for seating and with appropriate crumple zones so that in the event of a crash, the person behind the seat decelerates smoothly. But a design like that would cost a lot of money to develop, test, push through the regulatory process, build and maintain throughout its lifespan that airlines and aircraft makers would balk at the cash required—at least as far as those millions of cheap economy-class seats are concerned.

But I suspect the airliner seat will get a radical make-over sometime soon precisely because of money. Typically it's only business class seats that have received design attention because that's where airlines make enormous profits. But as fuel prices hike ever upwards, someone will do the math and realize that hauling around so many extra tons of useless economy seating materials is going to get expensive. And then a super-light, super-strong and hopefully much more comfortable airline chair will arrive for those of us who can only afford the cheap seats on a plane. 

[via The New York Times]

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11 Comments

  • prabhu eswaran

    In tight quarters: give yourself the suggestion before hand that you will cat-nap. If you want a 'good nights sleep' your body will be fooled and you will not have one. It is vital that you suggest to the mind that cat-napping will be good; it works!

    Coeur d'Alene Airplane

  • Rye Crowen

    Very interesting article and comments. I'm a grad student in Industrial Design, in SF, currently researching airplane seating, including personal space, privacy, and ergonomics. Mr. Eaton, I'd appreciate the opportunity to talk with you more on the subject, and anyone else as well. Mr. Tameling, I'd also be interested in talking with you as well (one of more instructor's was a steelcase for awhile). The more research I can gather the better.

    Ash, I do know that the windows are round to eliminate stress areas. A corner is more likely to develop a fracture, especially under the stress an airplane experiences.

    Thanks,
    ~Rye

  • Ash Sangamneheri

    Another thing about planes.. why are the windows so small?! I would love to have much BIGGER windows on planes so when you take-off/land you can see the cityscape/landscape.

  • Varun Arora

    I live in Singapore and most airlines in this part of the world have personal entertainment screens fixed into the backs of the seats in front - these screens have been getting larger (thankfully) and, presumably, heavier. With close to a hundred on-demand audio/video channels (in Economy!) on most top-tier airlines in this part of the world, I imagine there's some sophisticated electronics involved too. And then there's the USB-port (into which you can plug your iPod for charging during playback), and controllers with integrated keyboards that also need to be slotted in, and (at least on Singapore Airlines) a mysterious ethernet port too.

    I just don't see all of these electronics being fixed into the back of an Aeron-type seat. Kyle Austin makes a good point about kids kicking the front seat too...

    Bottomline: the idea (that seat design can and should be looked at afresh) is sound. The idea that it could be an Aeron-type seat, on the other hand? Not quite so.

    - Varun Arora
    Founder, HomeCamera
    www.homecamera.com

  • G R

    It is my view that its not so much the physical seat material or design that is the problem. It seems that all seats are the same size across all airline coach cabins, but the seats were designed with smaller people in mind.

    When was the last time the seat size was considered? 1930's, 1950's, 1970's. I have to believe that most aircraft in the air were probably built in the 70's & 80's, which means the R&D teams designing seats began research way before that. My point is, modern people are WAY bigger now in length, width and girth. As a man 6'2" 180 lbs, the seat is absolutely miss-sized for me, and I'm just a bit over average height. The lumbar shape of the seat is a complete joke. It causes me to cave my lower back and crane my neck forward because the top of the seat bulges outward. DOES THIS MAKE ANY SENSE? The best seats clearly are the opposite; firm lower support, gentle curvature to support the shoulders and neck above. If you've ever sat in a BMW or fancy Aeron chair, you'll know what I mean.

    The airlines are sadly outdated and archaic. They failed miserably to hedge their fuel costs the last decade, they operate in a manufacturing ring that is deplorably slow to bring new equipment to market, they are handcuffed by exorbitant union costs and they deal with unreasonable, obese, filthy, impatient customers that need unusual monitoring and supervision. The majority of major airlines will almost never be profitable as is. The future is the boutique airlines that put safety and service ahead of quantity and waste. But, as most of us have no alternative to move about the country without planes, progress will always be slow.

    Do you think comfortable seats are high on the priority list? No way. This article is a day-dream put to print. Yes, comfort in an airline seat is way overdue for an overhaul, but don't get your hopes up for anything different in our lifetime.

  • Gen Hendrey

    The Aeron they ain't, yet I am not so uncomfortable in airline seats. My size may favor me in this situation. At 5'5" / 120lbs one doesn't need so much leg room or padding, and I've certainly never experienced "cushions that always seem to dig into your legs."

    If the difference between my comfort level and the author's and previous posters' (all men, and likely a good deal bigger than I am by nature) is significant, and due to size, how much improvement can really be hoped for given our national, physical state?

    Assuming that the previous posters are all of a healthy weight, yet still find the seats uncomfortable, imagine how much more uncomfortable flying must be for the 33% of Americans who are overweight, and the additional 34% who are obese*.

    I used to be a little heavier, and everything felt less comfortable then. An uncomfortable bed was even more uncomfortable. A comfy sofa was not quite as comfy. While the airlines could do a better job of designing seating to accommodate a male of average height, I doubt it's possible to design airline seats in which most American passengers could be very comfortable for more than a few minutes. Many passengers are simply going to be uncomfortable because their bodies are unhealthily large.

    *Citation: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/28...

  • Ken Tameling

    There is some good news for those of use who find airplane seating uncomfortable. Steelcase seating technology that's found in chairs like our top selling Leap chair, is now finding its way into airplane seats. The LiveBack technology and Natural Glide System technology from Steelcase has been licensed to the leading airplane seat manufacturer in the world, B/E Aerospace. B/E Aerospace has taken the technology and adapted it for the specific requirements for air travel. If you have the opportunity to fly Cathay Pacific, you will find this technology in select planes in coach for long haul flights (the people who need it the most). The technology is also now available on select Japan Air Lines, and Air France planes. The LiveBack technology provides superior back support, and mimics each individual’s natural spinal motion. The Natural Glide system features include allowing the seat to glide forward while reclining, which helps with space efficiency, and avoiding the feeling like you’re intruding on the personal space of the person directly behind you. The feedback from users has been overwhelmingly positive! For more info on this technology, the following link is helpful: www.steelcase.com/leap

    Ken Tameling
    Seating General Manager
    Steelcase, Inc.

  • Kit Eaton

    @Kyle. Yep--though a thin, light hard-back to the chair would solve that, and increase privacy.
    @Joe. Most uncomfy flight I had was from Hong Kong back to Europe in a Boeing 747--seat didn't recline and seemed to be made of granite stuffed with forks. :) I really wish someone tackled the economy comfort.
    @Tim. I know! It's a pipe dream until the regulatory chaps accept something so revolutionary though.

  • Tim Krause

    I spent some time considering this very idea during my last flight. Without knowing the R&D costs, it seems like this could pay for itself reasonably quickly while increasing customer satisfaction. By moving to an Aeron-style chair the depth of the seat could be reduced by an 1-1/2". Over the 23 rows of a 737, the airline could gain an extra 34-1/2": enough room for another row of six seats. Money....in....pocket.

  • Joe Harder

    On Monday of this week I flew in a new Airbus 321 on USAirways, and despite being in first class (burned lots of miles to do so), I was AMAZED at how uncomfortable I was with the seat in the full upright position. I felt slightly "tipped forward" the whole time. Is this a result of the new g-force requirement, I wonder, and how bad is it in coach? Guess I'll find out next time I fly in steerage :-). Separately, in United's Economy Plus, I've found the seats themselves underpadded and generally uncomfortable, though the legroom is nice (especially since they've decreased the pitch in "Economy Minus" to make more room for legroom in Plus).

  • Kyle Austin

    This is great idea except for one thing. If you've ever had a kid or for that matter, an adult kicking or poking their knees feet, sharp objects into the back of your seat, you want a little more padding between you and the masses.