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This ingenious airline seat will make flying coach less awful

Privacy. Comfort. And yes, it will fit in economy—eventually.

Luke Miles never felt comfortable in an economy airline seat. As founder and CCO for the U.K. design studio New Territory, serving clients like Boeing, he had worked on concepts for airlines, including new plane layouts that radically rethink the interior design of aircraft. But flying on his own, and with his own family, he felt like the chairs on airlines weren’t just cramped, they were downright inhumane. Nobody in their own home sits with their back flat to a seat, facing forward, with their feet planted on the ground.

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“When we travel, [our team members] always keep our eyes open,” says Miles. “I’ve watched people stuffing cushions between their seat and the side wall, to create some sort of support mechanism . . . we were like, ‘Okay, this is something that needs to be addressed.'”

[Image: courtesy New Territory/Universal Movement]

So over roughly two years of work, Miles and his team developed a totally new type of airline seat that could be dropped directly into existing plane footprints. Rather than focusing on the pain point they couldn’t change—specifically the cramped legroom known as “pitch”—they developed a seat that would allow you to sit differently in it. Called Interspace, its back cushioning is split into two leaves. And these leaves each hide their own hidden panel, which can fold out to create a side wall that’s anchored against your arm rest. Interspace essentially turns an airline seat into a cozy cubicle, in which you can nuzzle up against one wall. Such seat designs are increasingly common in high-end first and business class, but nonexistent in budget travel.

[Image: courtesy New Territory/Universal Movement]

The paneled design has all sorts of ergonomic benefits, Miles argues. Interspace allows you to sleep more like you would at home, in a posture approaching the fetal position. He also points out that most airline seats have hard elements around the hips and kidneys, due to the arm rests that dig into your sides. This design trades a hard spot for a soft bit of fabric.

[Photo: courtesy New Territory/Universal Movement]

The designers worked through dozens of concepts and rough prototypes, and then “a lot of fine-tuning to get the final [design] to work,” says Miles. The team partnered with a materials manufacturer to create a custom, hard composite core for each panel. They then added a thin layer of padding. The panels are essentially taped together to create a non-mechanical joint that won’t fail under constant abuse. Then it’s all covered in traditional, stitched upholstery.

[Image: courtesy New Territory/Universal Movement]
You might wonder how a plane has room for all these folding panels: Wouldn’t a passenger get pushed forward under a pile of extra stuff? “There’s a void in most seatbacks, and a lot of unused volume,” Miles explains.

To make the design possible, and keep the overall weight down, Interspace removes the headrest, which generally requires a stiff metal core. Headrests are used in cars and other transit systems to prevent whiplash, but Interspace’s seat back still rises behind one’s head. (We asked New Territory about whether or not the seat would meet FAA regulations, but haven’t heard back yet.) In any case, those of us who’ve taken a flight only to have an upper vertebrae feel out of place for the next two days will probably appreciate the lack of extra head “support.”

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For now, Interspace has been designed and scaled for premium economy class, like those exit row seats that feature a few extra inches of pitch. But the studio will debut a fully economy-ready design soon, noting that there’s no reason the design couldn’t scale all the way to a four-person row, allowing families to have a pocket of privacy in the air. Before announcing Interspace, New Territory spun off a company called Universal Movement to sell the product—which also holds multiple patents on the design. Miles says he has heard from multiple airlines interested since announcing the chair earlier this month. In particular, airlines seem to be interested in the possibility of making their premium coach seats that much more desirable and worth of a $35 upgrade over typical coach. But given the languid pace of the airline industry, which faces low margins, potentially increasing regulatory oversight, and a general resistance to adopting new technologies, don’t be surprised if it’s a year (or longer) before Interspace takes flight.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach

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