Is Innovation Finally Coming To Economy Seats?

Filed Under: Travel

Could the COVID-19 pandemic be what finally leads to innovation when it comes to economy seating on airplanes?

Innovation has been focused on first & business class

Over the years we’ve seen an incredible amount of innovation when it comes to first and business class seats, as airlines have constantly upped their game:

Emirates’ incredible new first class

However, in premium economy and economy it has been a different story, and there has been little actual innovation:

HAECO’s proposed premium economy seat

Air New Zealand’s proposed economy bunk beds

Will social distancing change economy seating?

There’s a lot of talk about whether travel will ever be the same, and in particular if social distancing is here to stay. For now we’re seeing some airlines blocking middle seats, though this is only a temporary measure. In reality:

  • Even if middle seats are blocked, that doesn’t actually provide a full six feet of separation
  • This is only possible because most flights aren’t full right now and airlines are losing boatloads of money no matter what

Personally I think seating density will eventually return to normal, as we instead focus on other measures, from wearing face masks, to testing, to vaccines.

New economy class seat concepts

Aviointeriors has revealed a couple of new economy class seating concepts. While they don’t increase the space allocated to each seat, they do provide a bit more privacy and separation, but at a cost.

Economy class seats with shields

The most basic of the two proposed concepts is called “Glassafe,” and offers a kit-level solution that can be installed on existing seats to make close proximity among passengers safer.

This concept would offer shields between seats, not unlike the shields we’ve seen installed at some supermarkets and other stores to create more separation.

These shields are made of transparent material that are supposed to make the entire cabin harmonious and aesthetically light, while still fulfilling the objective of creating an isolated space around passengers in order to minimize contact and interaction.

This could be supplied in a variety of forms, including different shapes, materials, etc.

Economy class seats with shields

Alternating economy class seats with shields

The much more revolutionary concept is called “Janus.” It’s named after the two-faced God of Ancient Rome, and is unlike anything we’ve seen in economy before.

This would work for configurations where there are three seats per “section” — passengers seated in side seats would be facing forwards, while passengers seated in middle seats would be facing backwards. It’s not unlike what we’ve seen in some business class products, including British Airways’ old Club World cabin.

This configuration allows all three passengers to be separated with a shield, creating a protective barrier on three sides.

Alternating economy class seats


Alternating economy class seats


Alternating economy class seats

In theory this sounds like a cool concept, though I have several logistical questions:

  • Would these seats feel cozy, or just really claustrophobic?
  • Is this tradeoff worth it for those traveling with others, who would now have no way to sitting next to companions?
  • Given the high shield, does this make the process of squeezing into and out of seats even more complicated?
  • Would this slow down emergency evacuations, and therefore be hard to get certified?
  • Is this actually safer in terms of social distancing, because the person in the center will essentially be facing the two people seated in the row behind and to the sides, in some ways increasing face-to-face contact?
  • Would airlines be willing to complete the extra cleaning required to use these seats, since there will be even more surface to clean due to the shields?
  • How much do these shields weigh, because they’d increase the weight of the plane, and therefore fuel burn?

Bottom line

While we’ve seen lots of innovation with first and business class seating, the same hasn’t been true in premium economy and economy.

Frankly I’m surprised there hasn’t been much innovation with premium economy, since there are several options out there that look like a nice improvement for passengers with limited downside.

Meanwhile in economy I’m not surprised by the lack of innovation. The above proposals are interesting ones, though I’m doubtful that we’ll see these on a widespread basis anytime soon.

I guess it all comes down to what travel looks like post-COVID-19. If things do eventually return to normal, then I definitely don’t think we’ll see anything like this. Meanwhile if there’s simply a new normal, then maybe this is a possibility?

Do you think the current situation will lead to some real innovation with economy class seating?

Comments
  1. I could see airlines maybeee buying the first option as a temporary installation as needed, similar to how grocery stores have implemented plastic shields at the POS. However, the second iteration is a waste of time and money, as you point out, the person is facing two people, and if any of them sneeze or cough uncovered the whole idea is shattered.

    Also, I find it humorous that the they would have cgi models touching their faces in their mockups, when that is either the #1 or #2 way of transmitting the virus, depending on who you’re listening to. All it takes to make all of these ideas moot is to cough into your hand, and then touch your neighbor’s seat as you get up to use the lav.

  2. I’ll walk before I sit like that on a plane. Life will get back to normal. People need to relax and stop fantasizing about stupid stuff.

  3. I wish that bunk bed concepts become a thing. I don’t really need a fancy 4-course meal, noise-cancelling earphones, cocktails (pre-board or otherwise) or an 18″ IFE system… I just need a horizontal bed!

  4. Or we abolish Economy class and go back to a world where flying is a luxury good – and you pay for space accordingly.

  5. it would be a lot cheaper to just give everyone a face mask when they board because i imagine everyone flying will wear one even after we get a vaccine.

  6. None of this will come to fruition (for the best). Life will eventually get back to normal and everyone will forget about COVID.

  7. “Do you think the current situation will lead to some real innovation with economy class seating?”

    No.

    Do you honestly think when the (surviving) airlines finally get up and running they’re going to have money to redesign the economy cabin?

  8. From The Guardian:

    Alexandre de Juniac, the director general of the International Air Transport Association (Iata), said that if governments ordered airlines to adopt physical distancing onboard aircraft, at least a third of seats would remain empty and airlines would have to raise their ticket prices by at least 50% or go bust.

    “Either you fly at the same price, selling the ticket at the same average price as before, and you lose enormous amounts of money so it’s impossible to fly for any airline, particularly low cost; or you increase ticket prices by at least 50% and you are able to fly with a minimum profit. So it means that if social distancing is imposed, cheap travel is over.”

    Source: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/apr/21/physical-distancing-will-end-era-of-cheap-air-travel-industry-warns

  9. LOL.

    Airlines can’t even keep the planes in the air. Certainly not going to spend any money on retrofitting or designing anything new for years.

  10. This is just adding more surface area which people will touch and lean on… And the airlines will fail to clean properly.

  11. I love how these depictions show the young and fit comfortably relaxing in severely restricted seats. Maybe 20% of an average US plane resembles this??

    Also, shoutout to the horrible photo-shop of the guy on his laptop in the first pic. What a joke this is!

  12. Looks horrendously claustrophobic and completely ignores the fact that families also travel together.

  13. Yeah – no way the yin-yang Janus seat is happening.

    Starting passengers in the face and breathing/coughing/sneezing directly at them for the entire flight. No thanks.

    Although I’m impressed that someone has found a way to make the middle seat worse. That’s an achievement.

  14. Also – think of all the people that are going to try to put their feet up on empty seats in that yin-yang Janus config.

    Nope. Just nope.

  15. Not to mention that if you get the dreaded middle seat, you also have to fly facing backwards. I did that many times in WN’s old “lounge” seats and didn’t mind it. But I can tell you that those were some of the last seats taken because a lot of people refused to fly facing backwards. It’s a big reason why (sadly) Southwest got rid of those lounge areas.

    Many claim that facing backward (opposite of the direction of travel) gives them motion sickness. I have no idea if that’s true, but people believe it and will refuse to fly facing backwards.

  16. @stogieguy7
    When possible I travel reversed to the travel direction. This is easy on European trains. It actually saved me when the ICE I was on made an emergency, very short stop once. I was on my cellphone and noticed an abrupt stop while others fell off their seats. (There was a suicide by train incident.)

  17. I’d rather have a sneeze guard I could wipe down before I sit than no sneeze guard and have someone vomit all over me when they get sick.

  18. I don’t see FAA approving either of these designs. In a transport category aircraft you can’t have any injurious object within striking radius of the head. I don’t think you’d want those things anywhere close to your face in an accident.

  19. Who the hell wants to face perfectly forward or else have to be staring at your neighbor like that!? At least make them not transparent?

  20. What about the subway?
    What about elevators?
    What about buses or trams?
    What about lines at security or immigration?
    We will have to accept that there are places where social distancing is impossible.
    Planes are one of them. At those places other hygienic precautions, like masks, hand-washing etc., need to be taken.

  21. Some may remember that British Airways had seats in which passengers faced each other onboard the Tridents. And the public hated them!

  22. Mt wife is very subject to motion sickness. If she is not facing forward – in a car, bus, train, boat or anything that moves – she will blow chunks very quickly. If she was put in one of those backward-facing seats, she would be spewing over the whole cabin before the plane had finished taxiing to the departure runway.

    Those sneeze-guards are going to need to be much bigger. Might as well hand out rain ponchos and require everyone to suit up before they sit down.

  23. I just love these concept art airplane seats. They never show you what pitch airlines normally install, how it looks when it’s reclined, and seated by a mildly large person (average American).

    And did anyone else catch this, the width is impossible? As with all concept are, they never show you a full width cabin. These alternate facing seats looks like their width is at least 20”.

    @Chris

    This is correct. Social distancing is a short term remedy not a solution. It is much better and effective is you use PPE. Now what the future of everyday PPE will look like is a bigger question.

  24. So in the seats where three people are seated the person in the middle seat is always in full view of the two in front?? In business you still get enough privacy which would be seriously lacking here.

  25. Don’t agree, there was a strong innovation in economy class in the last few years – perfectly targeted on the needs of its customers: the lowest fares, accepting minimal comfort. So, airlines developed cabin products, allowing more passengers per square meter. Making seats thiner, lighter and as efficient in maintenance as they are now, or inventing those tight toilets in the back of A320neo for sure wasn’t cheap at all. All attempts to rise space per passenger will fail, as customers won’t pay for it, instead they’ll choose a cheaper airline. Nearly all airlines sell 10 abreast seating in their 777 now, what was not the case 20 years ago.

  26. Yuck. Proof not all change is for the good.

    Increase the pitch so the passenger with the deadly CV-19 breath in front or behind stays further away. Should require the removal of fewer seats than 1/3 in the empty middle seat option. Plus, no more reclining also increase distance and keep me from checking out their hair roots. The distance cannot get to six feet, but it all helps. Finally, my kneecaps would be much happier with the increased pitch. Now if my waist would just get smaller….

  27. I tend to agree that people only shop based on price for economy tickets. Anyways social distancing and such are completely incompatible with air travel.

  28. The easiest thing to do is make everyone wear a mask when they are on an airplane. Anyone who’s clearly sick (i.e. coughing) are not allowed to get on airplane hence lowering possibility of contamination. Everyone should be temperature tested before they even get through security so minimally people who are exhibiting cold/flu/ covid19 symptoms are eliminated from airports/ airplanes. These are all very simple steps that doesn’t cost much to take. Frankly speaking, anyone who’s sick but still insist on getting onto an airplane is just plainly selfish no matter what their reason is (emergency or not). No one wants to catch your cold/flu/covid19.

  29. As a mom often traveling alone with a toddler who is too old to be a lap child, neither of these options would work. Unless they’re also trying to get rid of young children in planes.

  30. They can wave about all these fancy seats, but at the end of the day, what improves the economy class experience is more space (and perhaps charging accordingly). When JAL came back from bankruptcy, they removed seats from their planes to make money, making 19 inch width and 34 inch pitch the standard on international. It worked.
    There’s no fancy features (or disastrous ones like CX and ANA shells) on those seats, and everyone loves them.

  31. Increasing airfare by 50-100% would help on several issues such as the environment, over tourism, over crowding at airports. May not be popular but cheap airfare is a fairly recent thing.

  32. I think airlines will just eliminate Economy Class altogether.

    We’ll probably see the very slimline premium economy products like Acro seats on SkyTeam airlines like Delta and China Eastern or ZIM seats like those on Singapore Airlines become the lowest class, with today’s Premium Economy becoming standard Economy.

    Haeco’s bigger thingy will takeover as Premium or Premium Economy.

    I could see closed door or big products like Safran Fusio becoming Business, and finally mini suites or SQ-style or EY-style A380 first class products as the new First/ beyond First.

  33. I’d also like to add that I think full service airlines will just admit members of frequent flyer programs only, or unless you join before you fly, for the purposes of tracking.

    We are already seeing Japan domestic hints of the future. ANA had introduced a policy of allowing ANA cardholders to check-in using credit card swipe/tap for domestic, I read on Aviation Wire JP.

  34. John got it spot on. Neither the FAA or EASA would certify these shields to fly, they’re death traps. Thin sheets of perspex at head height, not a chance.

  35. no, no and no…

    I flew on those BA Club World seats and it is awkward to face each other even given the space on CW. These economy seats will be even more awkward, given the tighter spaces.

    Social distancing is just impossible given how tight the pitches of these economy seats. Not to mention they have to share armrests. If Covid-19 remains an issue, I don’t see many people traveling anyway. So for now, it is just easier for airlines to block middle seats for the foreseeable future. All these shields are silly and those shields will just be another thing that cleaners need to clean.

  36. The last big pandemic was a century ago. Smaller pandemics appear once every 25 years or so. We are now encouraged to practice social distancing and enhanced levels of hygiene to limit the spread of Covid. This disease will in all likelihood eventually die out or at least become manageable. There is no need to go all hysterical and force people to practice social distancing or wear masks for the rest of our lives. There are many reasons why people cough, sneeze or have a temperature – and usually this is not a symptom of a deadly contagion. I hope sanity will prevail.

  37. the LAST thing i want to do when flying is to make eye contact with strangers. this is horrific.

  38. I’ve advocated for barriers between economy seats for years. I don’t want to touch other people. I’d hope the barriers would go all the way to the arm rest and even down to the seat. It would prevent people from invading the space of others. I’d honestly start flying in coach again if they had these. I don’t need the leg room or food in business/first. What I need is the knowledge that other people aren’t going to be in my space and forcing me to lean into the aisle for hours at a time.

  39. Those shields are repulsive. I don’t want to be exposed to another dirty surface that rarely gets cleaned. Just keep it as it is. Once there’s a vaccine, we can go back to how it was and no one will care. Instead of having to touch that filthy piece of plexiglass. I already don’t like window seats for that same reason.

  40. The shields could be used as a temporary measure for a couple of years as the aviation industry starts to slowly recover. But the Janus concept is about as realistic as Akbar Al Baker.

  41. On a sort if related item, since we all pretty much cant fly or use our lounge access, can you put out articles and pressure to get the credit card companies to issue a 50% refund of annual fee this year? Car insurance companies are giving back 25% or more due to not much use. The credit card perk of lounge access is a main reason the annual fee is so high.

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