Skift Take

Airlines and designers have the materials they need to make better seats and the competition that will drive them to do so.

Anthony Harcup, an associate with Acumen Design Associates in London, worked on Etihad’s revolutionary “Reimagined” interiors program as part of the Etihad Design Consortium.

He gives Skift Aviation Editor Marisa Garcia his takes on what’s right, what’s wrong, and what’s to come in aircraft cabin design.

Note: This is an excerpt from The Versus Issue, the second print magazine from Skift.

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“In the commercial sector, it’s companies like Etihad that own the loyalty of high net worth passengers who are prepared to pay for an exclusive experience, and so that is what Acumen have helped them to accomplish. The difference in approach between top-tier airlines and their lower-end competitors is the ‘Hospitality’ experience versus the ‘Transport’ experience. Hospitality is one of the key signature elements of the ‘golden age’.”

The Golden Age

“It’s interesting to look back at what is now referred to as the ‘golden age of air travel’ when getting on an aircraft to travel overseas was once a privilege of just a handful of fairly wealthy individuals. The relative expense of an airline ticket in 1960 which delivered a memorable and hospitable experience would likely be comparable to a business class or first class ticket in today’s money—however, back then, there was no low-cost comparison to benchmark against. The divide in offer is more clearly illustrated to today’s economy passengers by the on-board juxtaposition of the flat-bed seating products placed tantalizingly close to the moderately-priced seats in the back.”

Old Seats vs. New Seats

“Seating has not got worse, it’s that more people want to travel, and they are prepared to compromise their experience to cut costs. Choice has never been greater for the traveler. They can choose anything from a no-frills short haul flight to a luxurious intercontinental experience with a chauffeur to the airport, private lounge access and a butler on-board.

The real issue is what are people actually prepared to pay for? The majority of economy passengers will often opt for the cheapest possible fare. In view of this, it is no wonder that low cost air-lines have flourished—the market has demanded and the industry has responded. The lower the cost of the ticket, the more seats will be required in the cabin, and the less leg room can be expected for the passenger.”

Singapore Airlines new Premium Economy seating.

Singapore Airlines new Premium Economy seating.

Putting the Premium in Economy

“I believe premium economy is an area of opportunity for an airline to differentiate. Premium economy lacks true differentiation as an offer. Often, Premium Economy is sold and is only a standard economy seat with extra pitch. It is a tricky proposition for an airline, as if you make it too good, you diminish the benefit of business class. Perhaps a good Premium Economy seat should offer an ability to sleep more comfortably—albeit in a semi-recumbent position.”

Putting Design to Work

“I think designers, airlines and seat suppliers are working very hard in a competitive market to provide the best possible experience for passengers and [to] differentiate their brand. Airlines also have to balance this ambition with the commercial realities of creating a viable business model and seating enough passengers.

That said, I think there could be real scope to innovate in economy if it’s dealt with in the right way. The fundamental canvas of aisles and seat-tracks is well-ingrained. But perhaps there is another way of doing things. Acumen put a single aisle in First Class for the Etihad A380 to create a whole new canvas for the cabin layout—this was a huge step for everyone involved. That’s the kind of thinking we need to shake-up economy, but it requires collaboration with the airframe manufacturers to say: ‘How can we make this aircraft more flexible?’ Then maybe we can give passengers more of what they want.”

What’s in Store for Tomorrow?

“I think that cabin-zoning is a concept which has been lightly explored by various airlines, yet it has untapped potential to offer more choice and differentiation. This principle is used to good effect by low-cost carriers to monetize over-wing exit seats and bulkhead seats. There are many different types of passengers with different environmental requirements which could be addressed without the need for large-scale investment in new product.”

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Photo credit: The Residence on Etihad. Etihad Airways

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