Games of Thrones

the fu­ture of com­fort at 35,000 feet

Business Traveler (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - By Lark Gould

Nearly a cen­tury ago, air­line seats were as lux­u­ri­ous as wicker chairs nailed to the cabin floor. Re­clin­ing seats were a thing of the fu­ture, start­ing with the Fokker F-32, which took com­mer­cial avi­a­tion into the 1930s with added lux­u­ri­ous tex­tiles, arm rests and some re­cline.

To­day, the air­line seat – and par­tic­u­larly the pre­mium air­line seat – is a study as com­plex as rocket sci­ence when it comes to cal­cu­la­tions of weight, ma­te­ri­als, safety, ex­ac­ti­tude, er­gonomics, fi­nan­cial ef­fi­cien­cies, tex­tiles, func­tions, com­fort and let’s not for­get aes­thet­ics. That Business Class seat you are about to oc­cupy can cost as much as a house to pro­to­type, and eas­ily as much as a small car to scale.

While com­fort has its price, what’s wrapped into the cost of those C (still keep­ing the old Pan Am“Clip­per Class” code) and W (pre­mium econ­omy class) tick­ets is a study in de­sign and ar­chi­tec­ture where all the lit­tle de­tails start show­ing their pur­pose. The think­ing be­hind the seat – the what of it, the why of it – has be­come a con­stant process of nat­u­ral se­lec­tion in which each air­line up­grades in­cre­men­tally un­til no­tice­able and novel change turns into the wave of things to come.

“Now that we have passed the fully lie-flat seat and that has be­come a stan­dard, you might say it’s evo­lu­tions, not rev­o­lu­tions,”says James Boyd, spokesman for Sin­ga­pore Air­ways.

Sin­ga­pore was the first to come out with fully re­clin­ing seats in First Class in 1989, fol­lowed by Vir­gin and Bri­tish Air, who rolled out their lie-flat lines in 1996 com­ple­mented by sleep­wear. Although sleeper“berths”were a hit on the transcon flights of the 1940s and 1950s, the Boe­ing 747 wide body jumbo jets of the 1970s took the up­per class con­cept to new heights with a spi­ral stair­case to a bar lounge and spa­cious seat­ing in the loft cabin.

By the mid-1980s, a priv­i­leged seat in Business Class, wedged be­tween First and Coach, started show­ing up in transAt­lantic flights on Vir­gin At­lantic and later SAS and Con­ti­nen­tal (which cre­ated a hy­brid“Busi­nessFirst”cabin up front). Th­ese were es­sen­tially throne chairs that re­clined a bit but had lots of legroom and a sump­tu­ous 40-inch pitch (the mea­sure of the dis­tance from the top of the head­rest of one up­right seat to the same spot on the next seat for­ward or be­hind), an up­graded meal, lux­ury brand al­co­hol ser­vice and no mid­dle seats. The glove was dropped and the gun­fight was on.

In­va­sion of the Pods

Since that time C-class seats have gone from neo-den­tist chairs to shell-like pods to ver­i­ta­ble mini-domes of pri­vacy, and now a brand new class is emerg­ing from the back of the plane to put some shine on up­class­ing in the midst of Coach: the Pre­mium Econ­omy seat.

Some air­lines are be­gin­ning to phase out First Class al­to­gether and put Business Class in the front of the plane. Other air­lines, such as Eti­had and Emi­rates, are sass­ing up the top seats and turn­ing them into mi­cro palaces.

“We set the stan­dard for what was to follow for new gen­er­a­tions of First Class and Business Class Seats through Sin­ga­pore Air­lines,”says James Park, CEO of James Parks As­so­ciates (JPA) in London, which has de­signed seats for Sin­ga­pore, Cathay, JAL, US Air­ways and other air­lines. “But we had to use the knowl­edge we’d gained from the rail in­dus­try, where we had done quite a few com­part­ment de­signs for Ori­ent Ex­press trains. At that time we were ap­proached by Sin­ga­pore Air­lines be­cause we were known for be­ing good at de­sign­ing small spa­ces.”

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