Games of Thrones
the future of comfort at 35,000 feet
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.”