Frequent fliers know all too well: Hell isn't fire and brimstone. It's a coach seat on a seven-hour trans-ocean slog. For decades, airlines have sacrificed passenger comfort in their cattle-class benches to concerns for safety, economy, and ease of maintenance. The result: a cozy metal rack draped in luxuriant, stain-resistant DuraWeave. Talk about flying by the seat of your pants.
Perhaps there's a better way. Virgin Atlantic Airways, with London-based design firm PearsonLloyd, set out in 2003 to create chairs for its economy and "premium economy" sections that feel like, well, chairs—more furniture than machine. Virgin says it has spent $25 million on the project so far, with the new seats set to appear in planes over the next year or so.
Virgin and PearsonLloyd started by reexamining the historical constraints on airplane seating. The first was weight: One reason coach perches feel so spartan is the very real demand that they be light—and with jet-fuel costs at a record high, no airline can afford to add pounds. So the team figured out how to cut the number of components in economy seats by 20%. That let it add new features, such as adjustable lumbar support, while keeping overall weight the same.
The carrier also bucked convention by bringing designers to the party from day one. In the past, engineers mostly ran the seating show—and they put cost and safety above comfort and aesthetics. Not that those engineering concerns aren't vital: "We're designing a chair that has to withstand a 16 g crash test," says Joe Ferry, Virgin's design head. But previously, "it's been left to engineers to create the structure, and then [designers] stitched over the top of it."
Teaming designers with engineers produced creative solutions to old problems, like shifting a support bar so that it could hold the same weight load without sticking into passengers. It also yielded a new manufacturing strategy. Most airline seats are built the way couches are—a basic skeleton covered with upholstery. Virgin designers thought that approach wasted space and made upkeep difficult. So the new seats include replaceable modules that let cleaning crews quickly swap out damaged pieces during a plane's turnaround time: Just rip out the old and Velcro in the new. "Our maintenance guys have a much easier time maintaining the seats, and that ultimately means the passenger gets a comfortable seat," says senior design manager Paul Edwards. And by the way, the seat is thinner—though Virgin won't say how much.
PearsonLloyd then ran hundreds of iterations—computer renderings, scale models, full-size prototypes—in search of a single seat that would fit an infinite range of bodies, says Luke Pearson, cofounder of PearsonLloyd. Sitting down, "one person's head could be two inches higher than the next person's," he says. "Yet when they're standing, they're the same height." Designers responded with a movable headrest and adjustable seat back—each of which created new problems, requiring still more modeling.
What they've produced, in the end, looks a lot like… an airline seat. But it feels noticeably better—almost human, even for us tall guys. In tests since last winter, the seats have received mostly positive flier feedback, Virgin says. Which means that hell may be getting just a bit more livable.
A) Virtual Space
Meet the new economy-class seat that will be appearing in Virgin Atlantic planes over the next year. The visual tip-off: this Rocketeer-esque, carbon-fiber housing containing the entertainment system. It's meant to visually divide the back of the seat ahead (your space) from its front (the other guy's); when the headrest is moved up, the "backpack" stays put, creating the illusion, its designers say, of more personal space. It's a nice idea. The problem is that, in economy, the illusion of space isn't nearly as good as the real thing. "I'm still amazed over what a difference an inch can make," comments Matthew Daimler, founder of SeatGuru.com, a Web site dedicated to airline seats. And he has a point: 31 inches between rows is still just 31 inches.
B) Slide Rule
"As you recline, you need more support underneath your thighs," says Joe Ferry, Virgin's design chief. So designers added a track that lets passengers slide the bottom cushion forward in recline mode, revealing extra foam hidden under the seat-back padding. The change also angles the cushion upward to move the center of gravity and better distribute body weight. Virgin tested about two dozen types of foam to find one with the best weight dissipation. Total effect: more recline space and lower risk of sore buns. Plus, says Brent Stackhouse, a real estate consultant who flies often, "it would certainly help keep your pants from riding up to your armpits."
C) Back Down
Most airline seat backs are so flat you could play handball off of them—great for aerobic conditioning, but not for your comfort. "I have a bad lower back," says regular flier Liz Coleman. "I always put a pillow under it." To alleviate the pressure, designers created an S-curved frame with adjustable back support. Press a button on the armrest, and an airbag inflates or deflates, gently altering the seat's contour and pushing snugly against your back. The slight curve also means a bit more recline—the effect of which is enhanced by a higher pivot joint that lets the seat drop back an extra inch without bruising the knees of the guy in back of you.
D) Max Headroom
An adjustable headrest has been standard equipment in automobiles for eons, but it hasn't been adopted by most airlines. Virgin's moves up and down 2.5 inches, offering neck support for a wide range of body types. Is that enough? "A headrest, to be useful, has to move at least 5 inches," says Niels Diffrient, who designs office furniture for Humanscale and once shaped airline interiors. But even the modest change has beneficial secondary effects. Virgin says introducing headrests led it to make the seat backs themselves a bit shorter. That created more cabin headroom and, more important, allowed the carrier to widen seats by 10% and still fit the same number within the plane's curved walls.
E) Comfort at a Premium
Virgin's "premium economy" (better than coach; not quite business) seat got an overhaul, too. The airline added a dual-position footrest to support dangling feet and give passengers a leg up. That's good for 5'1" flier Celeste Frisbee, who laments that most seats are "made for bigger people." It also introduced leather (oooh!) and a hidden tray table in the armrest—plus a couple more inches in width.
A version of this article appeared in the October 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.