The Re­cline of Civ­i­liza­tion

The sci­ence of de­sign­ing an air­line pas­sen­ger seat.

Air & Space Smithsonian - - Front Page - BY TOM VAN­DER­BILT

Com­plex, evolv­ing, hated: an in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the hum­ble air­liner seat.

IF YOU HAVE EVER HAD THE MIS­FOR­TUNE to oc­cupy a tem­po­rary hold­ing cell, you may not re­al­ize that you are in­hab­it­ing a set of state-man­dated spa­tial re­quire­ments. These vary, but typ­i­cally are meant to en­sure inmates will spend no more than four hours in the fa­cil­ity, and that they will be ac­corded, roughly, 10 square feet of liv­ing space. In this way-sta­tion of the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem, the benches mounted to the walls typ­i­cally af­ford no less than 24 lin­ear inches in width per in­mate.

Many more of us have ex­pe­ri­enced a dif­fer­ent hold­ing cell, a place where one’s liv­ing space maxes out at 3.7 square feet, where the lin­ear seat­ing width is a par­si­mo­nious 17 inches, where you may be prod­ded awake by a restless nearby in­mate and, for rea­sons that are of­ten poorly ex­plained, housed longer than your ap­pointed time. This is the hold­ing cell of pas­sen­ger aviation: the air­line seat. It is part of a devil’s bar­gain, in which we re­lin­quish com­fort for the mir­a­cle of be­ing whisked at great speed to al­most any­where on Earth, for a price that would have been un­think­able a few decades ago.

As some­one who flies about 100,000 miles a year, I es­ti­mate I spend more than 200 hours—over a week—in air­line seats. The ma­jor­ity of this is in Econ­omy, what the in­dus­try calls “tourist class” seats.

But what was I sit­ting on? What thought (or lack thereof) had guided its creation? What mar­ket forces and fed­eral reg­u­la­tions and design con­straints shaped its con­tours?

I de­cided to find out. The place that pro­duces the most econ­omy class seats in the world is lo­cated in north Texas, a few hours up the road from Dal­las. Zo­diac Seats (pre­vi­ously We­ber Air, be­fore it was ac­quired by the French con­glom­er­ate) oc­cu­pies a sprawl­ing col­lec­tion of low-slung fac­to­ries and of­fice build­ings on the out­skirts of the city of Gainesville. Robert Funk, the com­pany’s vice pres­i­dent of sales and mar­ket­ing, is a Pitts­burgh na­tive—de­spite Gainesville’s prox­im­ity to Dal­las, his of­fice walls are adorned with Steel­ers para­pher­na­lia. Fre­quently when he meets peo­ple

Sub­tract and Di­vide

at par­ties, their first re­ac­tion upon learn­ing what he does is to ex­press sur­prise that man­u­fac­tur­ing air­line seats is an ac­tual in­dus­try. “You mean they don’t just come with the plane?” They do not. “It’s like buy­ing a house,” says Funk. “It comes empty.”

There are other con­straints, like min­i­mum aisle widths set by the Fed­eral Aviation Ad­min­is­tra­tion. Seats must not touch the in­ner walls of the air­plane. De­sign­ers have to ac­count for a cer­tain amount of flex­ing from the wall it­self, as the air­craft sails through the at­mos­phere. Hence the tiny gap be­tween the edge of the seat and the wall. “You have to think of the air­craft as a kind of long rub­ber bal­loon float­ing through the sky,” ex­plains Tim Man­son, design di­rec­tor at James Park As­so­ciates, a Lon­don firm spe­cial­iz­ing in trans­port in­te­ri­ors. “It will flex and move as it trav­els.”

And so the foot­print of the seat, and the re­main­ing “liv­ing space,” as Funk terms it, are es­sen­tially de­ter­mined by one over­rid­ing piece of math: The avail­able en­ve­lope of space that re­mains, di­vided by the num­ber of seats the air­line de­sires. Which is: as many as pos­si­ble.

And air­lines keep re­defin­ing what’s pos­si­ble, so seats keep get­ting skin­nier. While the rough in­dus­try stan­dard on seat width “that ev­ery­one would like” is 18 inches, Funk says, to­day “we are build­ing seats that are less than 17 inches wide.” On wide-body air­craft, he says, “you are see­ing a push to nar­row down the seats be­cause you can get one more column of seats in.” The pas­sen­ger’s “liv­ing space” largely stays the same over time be­cause as design re­fine­ments cre­ate in­cre­men­tal gains in space, the air­lines trans­late the added space into more seats per plane rather than

more space per pas­sen­ger.

As fuel costs rise, trim­ming weight has be­come the other driver in seat design. One of the heav­i­est items in an air­line seat is the IFE, or in-flight en­ter­tain­ment screen. These have be­come cru­cial to the mod­ern fly­ing ex­pe­ri­ence—“more ex­pen­sive than the seats them­selves,” Funk notes—and are so in­te­gral that providers like Pana­sonic and Thales have rep­re­sen­ta­tives on-site in Zo­diac’s Gainesville fac­tory to ad­dress tech­ni­cal is­sues as they come up.

As tech­nol­ogy de­vel­ops and IFES be­come lighter, changes rip­ple through the seat. On Zo­diac’s fac­tory floor—where it takes about three hours to as­sem­ble a com­plete seat— Funk shows me a ma­chined alu­minum “spreader” from the new ver­sion of the 5751, Zo­diac’s most pop­u­lar long-range seat, de­signed for twin-aisle air­craft and in­tro­duced in 2009. The spreader is the struc­tural part of the seat, like a minia­ture bridge span lo­cated roughly at the pas­sen­ger’s tail­bone. As IFES get lighter, the spreader has to ab­sorb less load im­pact.

This has al­lowed the ge­om­e­try to be changed, grant­ing a touch more space for the knees of the pas­sen­ger be­hind the seat. Many, in­clud­ing Funk, fore­see the dis­ap­pear­ance of IFES them­selves, in fa­vor of pas­sen­ger’s own mo­bile de­vices, a de­vel­op­ment he ex­pects will al­low the seats to grow thin­ner and lighter still, per­haps with some kind of pro­vi­sion for per­sonal elec­tron­ics.

If foot­ball is a game of inches, air­line seat design is a game of cen­time­ters. Much en­ergy has gone into shift­ing to “up­per lit­er­a­ture pock­ets,” to give pas­sen­gers’ knees a bit more clear­ance. Says Funk, “Some air­lines don’t want an up­per pocket be­cause they want the mag­a­zine peek­ing out from the pocket be­low.”

But Klaus Steinmeyer, vice pres­i­dent of busi­ness de­vel­op­ment at Re­caro, as­serts that mov­ing the pocket above the tray ta­ble is one of the spe­cific design re­fine­ments of his com­pany’s BL3530 Slim­line model econ­omy class seat that has im­proved pas­sen­ger com­fort. Another one Steinmeyer cites: The adop­tion of a slim­mer back­rest, filled with “net­ting ma­te­rial” rather than foam, that pro­vides a mod­est uptick in legroom while still al­low­ing air­lines to re­duce the seat’s pitch—the dis­tance from one point of a seat to the same point on the seat ahead.

Seat­backs them­selves have been shrink­ing over the years, another weight sav­ings. The BL3530 Slim­line seats sport back­rests thin­ner than their arm­rests, and weigh in at just over 22 pounds apiece, back­rest and cush­ion in­cluded, Steinmeyer says. Pas­sen­gers gain a few pre­cious cen­time­ters of knee space, he as­serts, with­out sac­ri­fic­ing back sup­port. He says the er­gonomic net­ting in the seat­back of 3530 ad­justs to the shape of the pas­sen­ger’s body more flu­idly than tra­di­tional foam seat cush­ions. He also cites the BL3530’S six-way ad­justable head­rest as an in­no­va­tion that gives the pas­sen­ger more liv­ing space—as­sum­ing, again, that the air­line doesn’t cash in those mod­est, in­cre­men­tal space gains for another row of seats.

On the Zo­diac 5751s I’m shown in the plant in Gainesville, I no­tice that a small arc has been carved out of the in­te­rior por­tion of the arm­rest—a mi­nor de­tail that gives the pas­sen­ger a minute amount of ad­di­tional space, with an in­cre­men­tal re­duc­tion in weight. For the same rea­sons, arm­rests have be­come thin­ner on the bot­tom—just, as Funk says, “an arm cap.”

But this too is a trade-off. More sub­stan­tial arm­rests pro­vide more of a bar­rier; as pas­sen­ger size in­creases in some mar­kets, the “idea of some­body else touch­ing you” un­der­neath the arm rest could be off-putting, Funk says. As for the bat­tle

over arm­rest space, a Hong Kong prod­uct de­signer named James Lee and his com­pany, Pa­per­clip, have at­tracted much no­tice for a sim­ple, el­e­gant “dou­ble deck” arm­rest design, which al­lows neigh­bor­ing pas­sen­gers to claim dif­fer­ent “lev­els.” So far, no air­lines have in­stalled it.

Luke Pearson is the co-founder and one of the two di­rec­tors of Pear­son­l­loyd, another Lon­don-based design firm. He de­vel­oped Vir­gin At­lantic’s seats in Econ­omy, Pre­mium Econ­omy, and Up­per Class, which means he gets to pon­der prob­lems the peo­ple in coach can only dream about when they’re sit­ting bolt up­right. A lot of thought (and de­vel­op­ment money) goes into pre­mium class seat­ing.

“There are only so many ways you can con­fig­ure hu­mans next to each other when they’re ly­ing down,” Pearson says. “Shoul­der space varies a lot and foot space lit­tle, apart from length. This is why it makes sense to over­lap shoul­ders with feet when pos­si­ble.”

Ben­jamin Saada,ceo of the French firm Ex­pliseat, says he was mo­ti­vated to found his firm with two other en­trepreneurs in 2011 when he re­al­ized, over many flights, that nearly all the im­prove­ments in the air travel ex­pe­ri­ence have gone to the mi­nor­ity of pas­sen­gers who can af­ford to pay a pre­mium. “All of the in­no­va­tion was just for Busi­ness and First Class,” Saada says. “But Econ­omy class is where most of the pas­sen­gers sit.”

Saada claims Ex­pliseat’s Ti­ta­nium Seat is, at four kilo­grams (nine pounds), the world’s light­est Econ­omy seat. Its thin­ness trans­lates to an ad­di­tional five cen­time­ters of pas­sen­ger legroom, Saada says. So far, it has sold to two air­lines, Air Mediter­ranean and the Con­golese car­rier CAA; Saada ex­pects to an­nounce ad­di­tional buy­ers at the Paris Air Show.

His other boast sounds al­most too good to be true: The Ti­ta­nium Seat’s car­bon-fiber frame is so im­pact-ab­sorbent you won’t feel it when the pas­sen­ger be­hind you kicks your seat or knocks his tray-ta­ble around. Saada hopes the air­lines who buy his seats will em­pha­size this perk.

“It’s be­come a key sell­ing point [for air­lines] to talk about the seats in the cabin,” Saada says. He also says that when an air­craft car­ries lighter seats, it uses less fuel, re­duc­ing the plane’s car­bon foot­print.

What be­comes clear, as I walk the floor at Zo­diac, look­ing at skele­tal frames await­ing tex­tile cov­er­ings, or rows of shrink-wrapped fin­ished seats, is how far from a sim­ple piece of fur­ni­ture an air­line seat is. For one, it is more than a seat. That 3.7 square feet is not just liv­ing space but also a work area, din­ing area, the­ater, even a sort of bed. Some­thing as ba­sic as a cush­ion is also, as the pub­lic ad­dress an­nounce­ments re­mind us, a “flota­tion de­vice.” Lurk­ing un­der­neath the cush­ion is the power sup­ply and hard­ware for the IFE, en­cased in a shroud meant to pro­tect it from the in­evitable spills of soft drinks down the seat cush­ions.

While the pas­sen­ger may hardly think of it, air­line seats are also part of the work en­vi­ron­ments for flight crew, par­tic­u­larly in pre­mium classes. “We of­ten think of pas­sen­gers as the users,” says James Park As­so­ciates’ Man­son. “But the cabin crew use the prod­uct day in and day out, just han­dling it and touch­ing it. They’re go­ing to have to re­trieve that pass­port that’s gone down the side.” Even in econ­omy there are dis­creet signs of this: Funk points to a seat for an Asian car­rier; al­most hid­den on the side is a small foot­step to help the air­line’s sta­tis­ti­cally shorter at­ten­dants reach the over­head com­part­ments.

The design fea­ture pas­sen­gers know least about is the one they hope they’ll never need: their per­for­mance dur­ing a crash. Dur­ing our tour, Funk and I come across a just-con­cluded “head path” trial on Zo­diac’s test sled. In a twin set of Zo­diac seats, a pair of man­nequins lie slumped over, each of their heads bear­ing what the test en­gi­neer jok­ingly calls a “Mo­hawk”—a piece of pa­per with a graphic icon. Dur­ing video anal­y­sis, the engi­neers can tell how far for­ward the pas­sen­ger’s head moved, and if it would have struck a bulk­head, with­out the com­pany ac­tu­ally hav­ing to build a bulk­head.

The sled moves only 30 mph down the track, but it stops in less than foot. “It’s go­ing to be pretty vi­o­lent,” Funk says. Ev­ery­thing is tested for its per­for­mance in these ex­treme sce­nar­ios, from whether the lug­gage bars un­der­neath the seats can re­strain a lap­top speed­ing for­ward to how a pas­sen­ger’s shins hit the lower seat “tubes”—that is, the struc­tural beams in the frame be­low the “seat pan,” the part you sit on, at its front and aft edges. As the trade pub­li­ca­tion Air­line

Pas­sen­ger Ex­pe­ri­ence ob­served, the July 2013 crash of an Asiana Air­lines 777 in San Fran­cisco was both a tes­ta­ment to the ben­e­fit of 16-G crash-tested seat design (in terms of pas­sen­ger sur­vival) and a re­minder of how much safety en­gi­neer­ing is still needed, given the num­ber of pas­sen­gers who sus­tained spinal cord in­juries.

Things like three-point safety har­nesses, al­ready stan­dard for crew and in some pre­mium sec­tions, of­ten come up for dis­cus­sion, says Funk. As with ev­ery change, de­sign­ers must bal­ance the cal­cu­lus of cost, com­plex­ity, and com­pli­ance.

When pas­sen­gers look in vain for power out­lets in their row, they are com­ing up against an in­ex­orable busi­ness cy­cle: Per­sonal elec­tron­ics change far more rapidly than air­line seats are re­placed, usu­ally no more than once per decade. “We have seats that have been fly­ing [for] 25 years,” Funk notes.

At least one pricey mis­step a gen­er­a­tion ago has made air­lines more risk-averse: They in­stalled, at great cost, seat-back tele­phones as a pas­sen­ger con­ve­nience (and source of rev­enue). But pas­sen­gers tended not to use them, even be­fore cell phones were widely adopted. “The gen­eral pub­lic tends to for­get that the fare they pay funds all this,” Funk notes, ges­tur­ing at the broad ex­panse of seats-in-progress. “I’ll put a wa­ter foun­tain on the seats if they’ll pay for it.”

But what about the seats them­selves? Why are they so un­com­fort­able? Or are they? Com­fort can be a sur­pris­ingly slip­pery thing to nail down.

“De­spite the fre­quent use of the term com­fort,” notes a study in the jour­nal Prod­uct Ex­pe­ri­ence, “there is no such thing as a gen­eral no­tion of com­fort or discomfort.” As a man whose height is roughly in the 95th per­centile, my view of what is com­fort­able may be dif­fer­ent, Funk points out, from that of a 10th-per­centile-height woman who doesn’t want “her legs to dan­gle.”

In an email, Re­caro’s Steinmeyer as­serts that his com­pany’s CL3710 seat has a “sixway ad­justable” head­rest mak­ing it “ideal for chil­dren, small per­sons, and se­niors.”

It prob­a­bly won’t do me much good.

Plea­sure and Pan

Back­ward-fac­ing, or “an­gled,” seats in pre­mium classes are de riguer at some air­lines, ver­boten at oth­ers. Pas­sen­gers’ per­cep­tions of com­fort may heav­ily be heav­ily in­flu­enced by ev­ery­thing from am­bi­ent tem­per­a­ture to the de­meanor of the flight at­ten­dants to whether they were able to binge-watch sea­son 3 of “Break­ing Bad.” “Re­moval of sources of discomfort will only ever re­sult in a neu­tral per­cep­tion of over­all com­fort,” Ben Or­son, James Park As­so­ciates’ man­ag­ing di­rec­tor, writes in an email. “To cre­ate a mem­o­rable sense of com­fort,” air­lines must of­fer not just the ab­sence of pain but at least a lit­tle pam­per­ing: He cites the turn-down ser­vice some air­lines of­fer for pas­sen­gers want­ing to sleep.

Discomfort is sub­jec­tive, too. One per­son may be an­noyed by the seat pitch; another by its width; for another,

the head­rest could be the source of pain.

Then there is time. “A cush­ion is dif­fer­ent af­ter a half-hour than af­ter five hours,” Or­son points out. Seats made for long-haul flights of­fer more re­cline and calf sup­ports to spread the load to the pas­sen­ger’s back and legs.

More­over, “com­fort” can be coun­ter­in­tu­itive. When I sug­gest to Funk that peo­ple might like econ­omy seats to re­cline a bit more, he notes that what mat­ters is less the ab­so­lute dis­tance a seat tilts back than the an­gle of re­cline. “When you get be­yond six inches, it’s ac­tu­ally un­com­fort­able,” he says. You push more weight onto your bot­tom as you slide for­ward.

These sorts of lessons have been learned at Zo­diac’s er­gonomics lab, a small room fea­tur­ing a mod­u­lar, fullscale air­line cabin mock-up in which test sub­jects, dressed in busi­ness at­tire (which they get to take home), spend six hours and upward in test “flights”—with a drinks ser­vice and all. Sub­jects, wired with elec­trodes, are mon­i­tored for signs of discomfort (e.g., tensed mus­cles). A nearby tub is used to help mea­sure the swelling as­so­ci­ated with deep vein throm­bo­sis. Be­fore and af­ter their “flight,” a sub­ject sticks his or her foot in the tub, and the level of fluid dis­place­ment re­veals if the foot has taken on more blood.

Lab re­sults have af­fected seat design. When the Zo­diac 5751 re­clines, notes Funk, the seat pan ac­tu­ally piv­ots upward. In one sec­tion of the floor of the Zo­diac er­gonomics lab is an Air New Zealand “Sky­couch,” a three-seat unit. Pre­sum­ing one has booked the three seats across, one can touch a but­ton to ex­tend the seats’ footrests; the three seats and the three footrests are then fused into a lie-flat “bed.” In another cor­ner, I am shown a new “zero-grav­ity” Zo­diac busi­ness-class seat, soon to be in­tro­duced by Amer­i­can Air­lines, which can lie flat but also fea­tures a La-z-boy-style re­cline op­tion that el­e­vates the pas­sen­gers’ feet above their hearts, al­low­ing the over­worked veins in their legs to rest, re­duc­ing swelling and im­prov­ing cir­cu­la­tion. “It ac­tu­ally tests more com­fort­able that way,” Funk says.

More rad­i­cal sce­nar­ios—like “cap­sule ho­tel” style ver­ti­cal pods—haunt prototype labs and patent of­fices. But that seems a stretch when more hum­ble in­no­va­tions, like Pa­per­clip’s arm­rest, strug­gle for ac­cep­tance.

Pearson says pas­sen­gers are at­tuned to what sorts of crea­ture com­forts they can ex­pect at what price. “Op­por­tu­ni­ties for defin­ing a dif­fer­ent propo­si­tion and get­ting it right are small and high-risk,” he says. Thus, “un­less the propo­si­tion is sig­nif­i­cantly bet­ter, price rules.”

Later that evening, with storms along the East­ern Seaboard be­gin­ning to dis­rupt flights, I scram­ble for a standby seat on an ear­lier flight. I am given, thanks to the good graces of a United agent and my elite sta­tus, the last seat, 32C. With my knees pressed up into the re­clin­ing seat­back in front of me and my own non-re­clin­ing seat wedged against the noi­some lava­tory wall, I am acutely aware of my place on the edge of er­gonomics for the 95th per­centile male. Un­com­fort­able as I am, I am glad to be go­ing home.

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