Airliners tread a fine line between comfort and squeezing in as many passengers as possible to be profitable. How can designers make them more comfortable for the average flier?

If you read some of the recent reports about luxury accommodations on airliners, you might be forgiven for thinking that the golden age of travel has returned. They give the impression that modern passenger carriers are now so big that each of us can travel in supreme comfort and privacy. That is very far from the truth. The back of modern planes – economy class – is still rammed full with what feels like ever-closer, more uncomfortable seats, but new work by industrial designers aims to make the experience of turning right on entering a plane as painless as possible.

Perhaps the most striking example of the modern opulence that few economy passengers will ever see is The Residence Cabin on Etihad Airways. A video released by the company starts by showing what look initially like very nice plane seats, but goes on to reveal a personal flat-screen TV, a separate bedroom with full bed, personal butler and a swanky-looking private bathroom.

But how many of us will be lucky to experience this kind of luxury? Most people will never travel in anything other than economy class. There will be just one of these multi-room suites on the Etihad’s Airbus A380 aircraft and nine slightly smaller ‘apartments’ along with 70 business class seats; compare that with the 417 economy class seats still allocated on the aircraft.

“We see a lot of concepts in the premium zones of cabins, and a lot of advancements in the first and business class sectors of the aircraft, but the economy cabin is overlooked and has been for many years,” says Jeremy White, head of transport at design consultant Seymour Powell in London.

Now, work by his firm and others means that things could be getting better for the cut-price traveller. As with the mostly carbon-fibre Boeing 787 Dreamliner, the new Airbus A350 will have a largely composite construction, saving weight, meaning the cabin air pressure can be higher, and more humid.

Large planes with many heat-producing humans on board present challenges for heating and ventilation designers. To simulate a cabin full of people, Airbus fills an entire plane with black plastic tubing, like drain pipes, occupying each seat. The pipes are filled with warm water, designed to simulate the thermal load of a person. This allows designers to ensure the shape of the cabin and the placement of the air conditioning system is as efficient and as comfortable as possible.

Aircraft interiors are big business, and even have their own expo where the industry gathers to look at new ideas. Much focus has gone recently on changing the seat layout. Instead of row upon row all facing forwards, some aircraft now orient seats in a zig-zag, or alternate them front/back facing, to give the passengers more room – an approach Air New Zealand has adopted in its Premium Economy class for example. And if Thompson Aero Seating has its way we will all have a little more shoulder room just by staggering rows of economy seats so that nobody sits directly adjacent to you.

On the other end of the spectrum, airlines such as Ryanair are reportedly considering using ‘standing’, or vertical seats, where passengers just have a little shelf to perch on for short-haul flights.

Flexible seats

Designers are exploring even more futuristic concepts for economy class seats. “It’s a very challenging space,” says White. His agency has designed an all-fabric economy seat, with a mechanism that can adjust to the width and shape of individual passengers in real time.

The concept seat works by replacing the three traditional foam pads on the seats with a stretched fabric. Underneath is a frame, and a series of moveable formers that allow the seat’s shape to change. The fabric is clamped down by the armrests and the upper dividers to form three individual hammock seats. Something taller fliers will appreciate: all the reclining is done within the space of the seat by stretching the base forwards. The seat back does not move into the knees of the person behind you. The ability to position the formers anywhere means a family of three can make one slimmer seat for the child, and wider seats for the adults, for example. Or a couple travelling together can eliminate the middle seat all together.

White says designs like this can create more flexibility for the airlines – they can fly the plane ‘all economy’ if required. Then without changing the hardware – just adjusting the seats – they can fly the same plane on its next flight with all premium economy. Or they can make any number of variations inbetween. He believes we will see elements of these concepts creeping into plane design in the future.

Economy travel is about packing as many low-paying passengers into a space as possible, and new seats are not going to return flying to its halcyon days for most of us, but as White says, “perhaps there’s a different way of making the business model of economy travel work”.

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