Lighten up: tech firms
take on economy-class flight challenge
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[October 26, 2016]
By Jeremy Wagstaff
(Reuters) - Some start-ups are taking on one of air travel's last
undisrupted bastions - the economy-class cabin. While first and business
class travelers have long enjoyed comfort upgrades, there's been less
attention to innovation at the rear of the plane.
"We want to make travel memorable and comfortable for all of us, not
just the top 1 percent," Alireza Yaghoubi, founder of Singapore-based
AirGo, told a recent start-up conference to pitch his superlight
He's not alone. Half a dozen firms are pitching something similar,
wanting to make seats more comfortable, improve cabin lighting, make it
easier to use and charge mobile devices on flights, and even upgrade the
humble food trolley.
They are trying to penetrate an industry eyeing significant growth on
the back of strong jetliner demand, illustrated by this week's $6.4
billion deal for Rockwell Collins to take over B/E Aerospace, an
Persuading the airline industry to upgrade, however, is a tough ask. In
a fiercely competitive market and with single-digit margins, carriers
have gone as far as they can with economy-class innovation, says Anthony
Harcup of Acumen, a UK design house that works with planemakers and
"Right now, we've designed ourselves into a corner with the current
economy format," he says. "It's about as tight and tiny as you're going
to get it. So something has to give, and it's difficult to see what that
Acumen, which designed the world's first flat bed for British Airways <ICAG.L>
20 years ago, has had only two of its in-cabin concepts lie unused: both
involved re-thinking the form and layout of economy-class seats.
But that's not stopping a new generation of outsiders working with new
materials and technologies to make economy class, if not luxurious, at
least more bearable.
FLAX SEED TROLLEY
AirGo's Yaghoubi, for example, vowed to do something about airline seats
when he flew back to his native Iran on its national airline and noticed
the seats hadn't been replaced since the plane was bought 40 years ago.
"Actually, they were quite a lot more comfortable" than today's seats,
The latest prototype of his seats, he says, offers a wider back rest by
having smaller elbow rests that fold down rather than up, and has better
head support. Extra leg room is created by moving the literature pocket
and improving the seat posture to have people sit more upright.
But these firms realize they can't just pitch their seats on comfort
UK-based Rebel.Aero, for example, promises to speed up boarding and
integrate a child seat by letting the seat slide upwards, like an
inverted cinema seat. This frees up space for passengers to move in and
out and stretch their legs. Founder Gareth Burks says he's halfway
through getting certification and has delivered sample seats to some
AirGo is counting on airlines liking that its seats are made of carbon
fiber composites, where fibers are braided like hair, creating a hollow
structure that halves their weight.
Others are experimenting with other materials. France-based Expliseat
has announced Air Tahiti as the first customer for its titanium seats,
freeing up the equivalent weight of up to four passengers.
And UK-based FlightWeight has redesigned the food trolley, ditching the
usual aluminum casing for mostly flax seed waste, volcanic rock, sugar
and water - making it almost a third lighter.
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A view of Airgo's 3D printed prototype of their Orion long-haul
aircraft seats at their manufacturing facility in Singapore October
7, 2016. Picture taken October 7, 2016. REUTERS/Edgar Su
Changing consumer habits also offer airlines a chance to shed weight.
Most passengers would prefer to use their own mobile device, says Fred
Cleveland, former vice president at American Airlines and now an adviser
to PricewaterhouseCoopers. This allows some airlines to ditch some
expensive and heavy wiring and hardware, and convert seats into charging
Cobalt Aerospace, another UK-based design firm, offers ways to customize
seats, including wireless charging in tray tables and arm rests.
This could be bad news for suppliers of in-flight entertainment systems
such as Thales and Panasonic. Singapore Airlines' budget subsidiary
Scoot has already abandoned traditional seat-back consoles in favor of
But there are obstacles for start-ups.
A lot has already been spent by companies such as Germany's Recaro and
France's Zodiac Aerospace on making seats as light as possible by using
advanced materials. Many leading airlines are already installing them.
But production bottlenecks in the interiors industry highlight the
challenges it faces in keeping up with demand, and may make airlines
wary of gambling on untested suppliers.
Persuading airlines to spend more isn't easy, says Martin Darbyshire of
UK-based Tangerine, which customized the head rests in Cathay Pacific's
A350 economy seats. Cathay was willing to make the changes, he said,
because it makes money from economy. "But for most other airlines the
costs are prohibitive."
Maybe the biggest hurdle is certification.
There are strict rules about what can and can't be done, and any tweaks
require approval. When one airframe maker reduced the weight of the
tracks where seats slot in, it found itself having to restore all the
saved weight to ensure the design met certification requirements, said
Darbyshire. "It becomes a vicious circle."
Part of the problem is that while passengers grumble about economy-class
travel, they are sensitive to price and don't differentiate much on
features, says Acumen's Harcup.
Unlike booking a hotel, he says, where cost is just one of many metrics
a customer looks at - internet access, parking, a pool - when it comes
to the airline seat "the passenger is confronted with one metric and
that's cost. So it's no wonder we're in the situation we're in."
(Reporting by Jeremy Wagstaff, with additional reporting by Tim Hepher;
Editing by Ian Geoghegan)
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