Making Airline Travel Feel Less Like Torture

To the average passenger, an airline seat is a cramp-inducing, ill-fitting device that's the closest most of us will ever come to receiving torture. But to Glenn Johnson, an airline seat can be a thing of elegance. Johnson, a graduate of London's Royal College of Art, is the chief designer at B/E Aerospace, one of the leading suppliers of airline seating. In his office—where visitors must sit in prototype airline seats, which he uses instead of office chairs—he clicks through a portfolio of seat sketches. He talks excitedly of his vision for revolutionary kinds of new seats—comfortable, functional, even beautiful. "We're trying to follow what Apple has done with MP3 players and consumer electronics," he says. "Why can't we become the Apple of the aircraft industry?"

It's a lofty goal, but the time may be right. Airlines have embarked on a wave of upgrades, many of which include innovative new kinds of seating. Most of this inventiveness is confined to premium-class cabins, particularly on overseas flights. But even back in coach, airlines are beginning to order a new generation of seats that are lighter (to save on fuel) and slightly more comfortable. "You're seeing a little bit of an arms race," says Matthew Daimler, founder of SeatGuru.com, a Web site that reviews airline seats for comfort. "Once you sit in a good seat, it becomes really addictive." This trend is benefiting suppliers like B/E, where revenue grew 49 percent, to $1.68 billion, in 2007.

This wave of redesign follows decades of slow evolution. When Jim Hadden entered the industry in 1965, seats were constructed of steel, aluminum and thick cushions. "They were massive—think of the big chair in your living room," says Hadden, now American Airlines' manager of cabin design. During the '70s and '80s, airlines shifted to thinner cushions (to save space) and all-aluminum frames (to reduce weight), but the biggest change in seating was in the positioning: to squeeze in more passengers, airlines decreased the "pitch," or distance between seats, until some carriers allocated just a kneecap-busting 29 inches. Business-class seats were roomier but nothing fancy.

That began to change around 2000. To help transoceanic business-class fliers get more shut-eye, British Airways introduced the first lie-flat seat. To help fliers maneuver them, suppliers began installing motors and electronic controls. To enhance privacy, they created "mini-pods." Fliers loved them, but for airlines they created challenges, since they take up far more floor space. So designers at B/E began obsessing over LOPAs, an industry acronym for "layout of passenger arrangement."

To cram in more seats, designers began repositioning them so they no longer faced the front of the plane. In 2000 British Airways unveiled a new business class with some aft-facing seats, and in 2003 Virgin Atlantic opted for a "herringbone" pattern, with seats positioned diagonally (passengers' feet point toward aisles). For United Airlines' new business class, B/E general manager Tom Plant sketched out a plan in which pairs of seats would face each other, divided by a console containing TV screens and footrests. He handed the design off to Johnson, who loved the layout but hated the divider. "It looked like a urinal," says Johnson, who assigned his design team to redo it with pleasing curves and a nook for briefcases. United began installations last November.

None of this comes cheap. A fully loaded business-class seat can cost upwards of $35,000. First-class suites cost far more. Singapore Airlines' new Airbus A380s contain 12 first-class enclosed suites, each with a butterscotch leather chair that folds out to a twin bed. B/E designers created similar "superfirst class" suites for Jet Airways and Emirates Air. Time-pressed travelers justify the huge fares because it allows them to avoid having to build in a day to recuperate from jet lag. Consider EOS, which offers 78-inch lie-flat seats on business-class-only flights from New York to London at up to $8,000 per seat. "Athletes and models love us because we're long enough to accommodate them comfortably," says EOS chief lifestyle officer Adam Komack.

Back in economy class, conditions are noticeably less cushy—but they may soon get slightly better. Both B/E and Texas-based Weber Aircraft are offering next-gen models that move in new ways. At the Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg next month, B/E will roll out a coach seat with an "articulating bottom"; instead of just reclining, it has a bottom that slides out a couple of inches. Weber makes a similar seat for the new Boeing 787. "You're going to see a big wave of those in the next two years," says American's Hadden.

Of course, airlines aren't doing this because they care about your aching back. "That's as likely as Alcatraz prison asking, 'How can we make the prisoners more comfortable?' " says industry consultant Michael Boyd. Instead, they're upgrading coach seats to save on weight. B/E's new Spectrum model weighs 12 pounds less than its predecessor; some airlines figure one pound less saves $200 a year in fuel. While airlines appreciate the weight reductions, so far they've mostly refused to pay more for more comfortable coach seats, since coach customers choose flights mostly by price. That's a source of frustration to designers like Johnson, who's particularly proud of a new upscale coach seat called the Icon, which features an innovative method for reclining without impinging on the space—or banging the knees—of the passenger behind you. "It's the most innovative economy-class seat in 50 years, but [some airlines say] it's too heavy and too expensive," Johnson says. If it doesn't catch on, back at B/E's headquarters it will still make a great-looking office chair.