Uncomfortable reading about aircraft seating

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There are many factors that influence how pleasurable a flight might be, including interior design, in-flight entertainment, food quality, luggage storage and service. There is one aspect of the experience, however, which can render the others insignificant if it isn’t good. And that is the seat.

I’ll come back to business class seating later but most of us turn right when we board. And let’s face it, how many times has anyone flown in economy class and complimented the crew on the supremely comfortable seats, which had plenty of legroom and were so easy to adjust into the perfect position?

As I’m sure most people appreciate, economy class seats are built to a price, and therefore we should put up with what we get. What rubbish! Why then, is it so rare to find a comfortable seat? There are many factors which go into this question, not least the fact that we human beings come in all shapes and sizes, so what one person finds comfortable, another may not.

Another problem is that comfort is difficult to measure. In the absence of a ‘comfort-o-meter’, we need to look at a number of factors such as traditional ergonomic posture assessment, pressure mapping and of course, benchmarking. Whilst comfortable economy seats may be rare, they do exist and so measuring the parameters on what are considered ‘good’ seats has to be part of the mix, and should be carried out at the end of a flight with multiple users. A five-minute assessment by a CEO, no matter how well calibrated their backside might be, is not an objective test!

And so to business class. With long haul, almost every major airline offers seats that convert to lie-flat beds as a part of the package. I’m fortunate to have tried a few different airlines’ offers, and I find it hard to differentiate between them. The storage differs, the IFE screen operates in a different way, some face backwards, but when it comes to the acid test – how comfortable they are when both upright and flat – I wouldn’t single out any particular solution.

They’re all pretty good, but my big question is: are they as good as they could be? And I mean that in every aspect, from design, to visual appeal, comfort, manufacturing cost, ease of installation and reliability. As an engineer (not a designer), I doubt it.

So, having decided that this might be an area where NTDC could add some real value to the industry, I attended Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg, back in April. For me, it was an absolute triumph… of hope over expectation. What I saw was a large number of incremental designs, just nudging the standard forward a little at a time; I only saw a couple of examples of what I thought were genuinely innovative solutions, and nothing that I would describe as disruptive.

Before you start reaching for the pen or the keyboard to complain, I know this is a highly regulated sector, and rightly so; but I also believe that there needs to be some ‘out of the box’ thinking if we’re to create step changes and revolutionary design solutions, and I believe that we can do that whilst respecting regulations.

If only there were a National Centre somewhere, set up to engage with the transport design community and users, to push the envelope and research disruptive solutions – all in a modern building with state-of-the-art facilities…

David Wright, Coventry University’s director of strategic initiatives, is responsible for the execution of the National Transport Design Centre (NTDC) project

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