Beginning this fall, every new airliner will feature passenger seats that are the strongest ever, and some will even come equipped with airbags. It’s great for safety, but here’s an interesting question: Airline seats are clunky–why aren’t they more like the Aeron chair?
Compare the famous Aeron to its office chair predecessors: They are typically heavy, ugly slabs of plastic with fabric coatings that don’t adapt to your body shape particularly well, and with posture controls that are often a mystery. Meanwhile Herman Miller’s Aeron chair disposes with the fabric over stuffing design and has a light mesh seat stretched over an open frame, making it more adaptable to your body, with easily adjustable posture controls. It’s lighter, better looking and is widely regarded as being extremely comfortable.
And then look at the average airline chair. It’s a mess of molded plastic parts and metal fixings, with stiff cushions that always seem to dig into your legs in the wrong place, hard armrests that are rarely comfortable, and a distinct lack of posture adjustments. They’re clearly designed from some long-ago agreed safety standard that didn’t take into account thigh pressure points for deep-vein thrombosis, and haven’t been adapted to take advantage of today’s modern strong and light materials. It’s clearly a design begging to be given the Aeron treatment.
But it probably won’t be, for several reasons. The first is regulatory. The new regulations that come into full effect this fall mean that new seats have to withstand accelerations in a crash up to 16 g–much more than the previous 9 g. And that’s great for safety, since studies have suggested that stronger seats that are more firmly fixed to the floor will save many a life. But getting a revolutionary new design past the FAA and other global flying bodies is going to be an exercise in fighting an enormous amount of red tape.
Another reason is design inertia. The airline seat is the way it is, and everyone in the industry is familiar with it. There’ll be a range of chosen manufacturers, and a whole industry busying itself with replacement fabric coverings and new cushions. Effecting a revolutionary change in that environment is likely to be tricky.
The last reason is cost. Those new safety regulations could be met with a super chair that’s built from materials like carbon fiber, covered with a strong Aeron-like mesh for seating and with appropriate crumple zones so that in the event of a crash, the person behind the seat decelerates smoothly. But a design like that would cost a lot of money to develop, test, push through the regulatory process, build and maintain throughout its lifespan that airlines and aircraft makers would balk at the cash required–at least as far as those millions of cheap economy-class seats are concerned.
But I suspect the airliner seat will get a radical make-over sometime soon precisely because of money. Typically it’s only business class seats that have received design attention because that’s where airlines make enormous profits. But as fuel prices hike ever upwards, someone will do the math and realize that hauling around so many extra tons of useless economy seating materials is going to get expensive. And then a super-light, super-strong and hopefully much more comfortable airline chair will arrive for those of us who can only afford the cheap seats on a plane.