Over the past few years, aerospace designers have introduced a slew of wildly uncomfortable-looking economy seats–the latest of which is a new cattle-class airplane “saddle” unveiled at Hamburg’s Airplane Interiors Expo. You’ll be relieved to know that at least one company is trying to design a compact economy seat that is not a literal pain in the ass. It’s not as easy as it sounds–but it could make air travel a bit better for all of us.
The Eco Seat, which was also presented in Hamburg, shares the mission of the airplane saddle: to give airlines a way to increase passenger density. But PearsonLloyd–a London-based design studio focused on aviation, workplace, healthcare, and urban environments–is aiming to maintain a fair balance between airlines and passengers.
As I discovered speaking via email to cofounder and director Luke Pearson, finding that balance is a serious challenge. The studio’s objective was to make passengers more comfortable and make the cabin feel roomier, all while keeping the seat’s weight as light and strong as the industry demands. Here’s how they did it.
Pick Two: Light, Strong, Or Comfortable
The matter of weight is extremely important for airlines, and the cost of fuel needed to carry a single pound can quickly add up. For instance, a single 4.5-pound laptop adds $138 in fuel per year of flight in a single plane. If, say, an average of 50 passengers bring their own laptop on Delta’s fleet of 724 airplanes every day, it would cost the airline almost $5 million per year.
The Eco Seat is designed around a thin, carbon fiber composite shell and a central “spine” that provides all the structural support and contains all the seat’s functional parts, like the audiovisual module and the tray. Unlike the boxy, flat profile of a traditional seat, the design uses this thin, curving spine to greatly reduce the volume and material of the seat, which the studio says adds an inch of extra space on either side. The contoured spine follows an ergonomic curve all the way up to the headrest, which the company claims allows for a more comfortable posture in the upright position. “Our back is more contoured than most, which places the head more naturally above the body to stop it falling forward,” Pearson says.
So, where does your hellish airplane food go? According to Pearson, current bi-fold trays are too thick and take up too much space from the seat. Instead, the central spine holds a much thinner folding tray table with extra leaves that extend it to the width of the chair. The designers also eliminated the typical kangaroo pouch of most seats, home of emergency instructions nobody reads, sticky inflight magazines, and your flight trash. “The tray mounts in the same location but it takes up less space on the rear of the seat,” Pearson claims, “so we can have lower and upper storage [spaces]” to place your personal items, like phone charging cables (and your flight trash).
But again, the design involves its own trade-offs. “Economy seats are already super reduced in terms of material quantities,” Peason says. “Even though [our central spine design] reduces the back height and volume [saving a lot of mass], our solution adds also some complexity [offsetting those savings].” The spine design allowed the company to shave off mass all over the seat, by rounding the corners on the upholstered back and the headrest. The curved corners make the seats a lot lighter to compensate for the added weight of the structural spine. Bolstering its environmental cred, the chair’s aluminum parts are made from recycled aircraft aluminum, while the foam cushions are separated from their textile cover–made from a recycled wool mix material–by a “spacer knit” that provides air flow to the user.
The round-edged, thin-profile design may have psychological effects, too. Pearson says that the people who tried the Eco Seat during testing at their immersive VR installation in the Airplane Interiors Expo 2018–created by the London-based digital agency Neutral Digital–reported that it made the cabin feel a lot roomier: “Our design breaks this mass up at shoulder height, quite considerably liberating sight lines,” he says.
Why Economy Hasn’t Changed In Years
Pearson believes that you can’t get much thinner than the Eco Chair until new materials allow the same structural integrity at a much thinner profile. Under today’s technological limitations, this is pretty much as space-saving as airlines can get.
“The seat thickness itself is limited by current materials of composite shell and seat foams–which offer better support than tensile textile structures that require protection from the aft passengers knees,” Pearson explains. Plus, any design has to accommodate different body types and nearly any duration of travel. It also has to meet the aviation industry’s rules and safety standard, (against which their design hasn’t yet been tested). “There are many structural and weight considerations,” he adds, “like 16G crash testing and head impact, or egress into seat rows.”
All of this limits the way air travel has evolved for passengers in recent years. Pearson has watched economy class getting cheaper as the space gets smaller, while business class has gone in the other direction. The space between coach and business has had no real design development.
This is something that he believes could change as airlines debut more options and customization for ticketing, combined with modular seating designs that will allow airlines to quickly and cost-effectively swap out seats. Airlines could adjust passenger density on the fly, adapting to demand and even adjusting the way seats work based on context. For example, a packed short-haul flight could limit how seats recline. “It seems crazy in many ways how static aircraft interiors are, full of empty seats when half full for example,” Pearson adds. Does that mean that bizarre alternative designs, like the saddle seat, could be a solution? Here’s what Pearson had to say:
Innovation rarely comes without failures. We need to experiment, if only to find out what we have is good. Clearly the density of passengers is impressive but the proximity and feel may be rather negative. In terms of comfort the analogy to cowboys riding a horse for eight hours seems odd. First there is a lot of movement and fresh air and the body is in motion. Secondly, don’t cowboys have a certain swagger after eight hours riding? Ultimately, I think the market may well decide in this specific example. If people don’t feel the comfort to cost benefit is worth it they won’t fly.
Ultimately, the saddle seat confirms the current model of air travel: People sitting in coach, others lying down in business class, nothing in the middle. Could crazy alternatives eventually rethink the experience completely–like Fifth Element’s vision of travel in which coach users get into capsules to sleep for long-haul flights?
“For long-haul some of these proposals make sense,” Pearson tells me. “For short haul, we may see similar more radical options. It’s very hard to predict though how long cheap fuel will facilitate cheap travel.”
But even if airlines and flight authorities agree to make things more flexible in terms of layouts and seating, the passengers have to find these seats or capsules attractive enough to pay for them. Airbus is experimenting with bunk bed-style cargo holds that passengers could pay to access for part of a long-haul flight, but the company also recently shuttered its radical modular plane project. Right now, the industry is being driven toward more economic aircraft that can fly further with more people inside. It’s is a trend that will continue for some time, Pearson adds: “With that pressure, the drive for new formats to ‘package or carry’ passengers better will continue.”
Still, I wouldn’t mind getting into a Fifth Element-style capsule to sleep all the way from Madrid to Los Angeles. We can dream.