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Why Better Seats in First Class Can Lead to Better Ones in Coach

May 14, 2014 7:00 am

Skift Take

While we have no faith in trickle-down economics, there is a real correlation between design improvements in first class and life getting a little better in economy.

— Marisa Garcia

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The Lobby lounge on Etihad’s A380s and Dreamliner’s will offer meeting space for premium customers.

The Superlight Ultra XC is an evolution of the original Superlight seat that e designed for Acro Aero, a balance of simplicity, comfort and features required by full service carriers.

The XL seat takes advantage of the unique overlapping seat configuration pioneered by Thompson Aero and refined by Factorydesign.

Working in partnership with Four Seasons Hotels, TCS Expeditions and Iacobucci HF Aerospace as their preferred design partner, Factorydesign has helped define the Four Seasons Private Jet Experience.

The majority of passengers may be baffled by recent introductions of apartments in the sky, major luxury hotel chains buying planes, and other premium offerings introduced at the same time that news spreads of nightmarishly lean economy seats and tight seating configurations.

It’s reasonable to think a class war is underway; that the separation between the affluent 1% and the rest of us has reached sky-high proportions.

But, as Adam White of Factorydesign explains, things may not be as bad as they appear.

In fact, the Creative Director of this London-based design firm, responsible for recent innovations like the Four Seasons Jet and Etihad’s Residence, gives us some good reasons why all passengers might want to celebrate these and other Premium interiors innovations about to take off.

“British Airways broke the mould for airline seating when they launched a flat bed variant in the nineties,” White tells us, “and the industry spent the next decade catching up.”

Today’s unique market conditions foster change at a faster rate than we’ve previously seen in the industry. As White points out, “Nothing stands still when there is a commercial imperative so the future just got brighter for the air traveller.”

If it isn’t immediately apparent how a radical change at the front would translate into a brighter future for the back, it’s important to understand the dynamics of change in aviation; and the impediment which aircraft manufacturers, equipment manufacturers and the regulators pose to any changes proposed by airlines and designers.

As White tells us: “It has only been possible after five years of co-operation between Factorydesign, Etihad, Airbus and Boeing, as well as legion manufacturers of all the new components that go together to create the redefinition. This includes the entire team working with certification bodies around the world to make the technically complex package legal to fly, no mean feat in the airline world.”

Some objections are based on safety concerns, but even these can be addressed with the right testing and configuration of the product. Most of them are economic.

Airbus and Boeing want to deliver the aircraft on the books as quickly as possible, in order to satisfy their investors. New programs which go “off book” slow down aircraft deliveries considerably. Sometimes by years.

The manufacturers of the equipment hesitate to produce limited runs of special parts because they also slow down their production and present a significant financial risk, once the costs of development and certification are all rolled up. Even if the design does not fly, those costs are incurred and not always covered by the airline.

Whenever possible, both of these try to persuade airlines to stick to proven products.

Regulators also remain conservative, weary of allowing changes which may later prove problematic, or occasionally suffering from tunnel-vision on the scope of the regulations on the books.

Once changes fly, though, all these objections disappear; not only for the airline introducing the change but also for any airline who wants to “borrow” an element of the design improvements introduced. Certification becomes easier, and manufacturers are encouraged to support more airlines adopting these changes in order to off-set the development and certification costs incurred.

Though Etihad’s lavish apartment has reaped the most media attention, there were changes introduced in all elements of the cabin, across all classes. In fact, the Economy Class product, White tells us, was considered as carefully as the rest of the aircraft.

“The Etihad Airways A380 also tackles the experience for coach passengers with a huge amount of effort being put into creating a large, open welcome space as you board, rather than the traditional walking on through a busy, stainless steel galley.” White says. “Once in the cabin, the seat has been enhanced to give passengers the side support normally only experienced next to the sidewall when seated by a window, in the middle of the cabin. Display cases for duty-free, screens showing video about destinations and unique lighting all come together to raise the bar again.”

White also points out that the program was based on passenger feedback.

“It should be said that in the early days of the Etihad program, the designers and the airline got together with large groups of different passenger types at four capital cities around the world, to drill down on all that was right–and wrong–with modern air travel,” he tells us.

And the Four Seasons Jet, he feels, is a good way to encourage other travel brands to enter the market, providing a little competition to the traditional carriers and the established charter airlines.

“What we see with the launch of the Four Season jet is a confirmation of the enormous value to businesses in hospitality embracing more than a single core offer,” he says, “and with the ultimate in luxury at the heart of the offer a redefinition of the package holiday.”

If a project like the Four Seasons Jet succeeds, other hospitality brands from trying something similar, even if on a smaller scale.

White recognizes that the first deployments of both these unique programs are pricey.

“It has been fascinating for Factorydesign to be involved with Four Seasons who have traditionally been the ‘destination’ for the airline closing the loop and offering the travel as well. I spoke to a Senior VP at Etihad during the launch of our work on the A380 and B787 cabin interiors who thought it the single smartest piece of marketing she had seen by a Hotel Group. I couldn’t agree more,” he says, “as long as your wallet is deep enough.”

He also tells us: “Other airlines have talked about deriving onboard service style from hotels and the aircraft/hotel comparisons have been made, but never before realized.”

But the paradigm shift, White believes, will resonate throughout the industry. “It has taken until now for Etihad Airways to break the mould again, with Factorydesign creating the most customized interior ever flown in commercial aviation, and once the benchmark is raised, everyone will want to follow.”

Marisa Garcia has worked in aviation since 1994, spending 16 years on the design and manufacturing of cabin interiors and cabin safety equipment. She shares insights gained from this experience on Flight Chic and Tweets as @designerjet.

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