In the event of an airplane crash, your seat is the only padding between you and the bone-crushing forces of slamming a giant hunk of metal into the ground at thousands of miles per hour. For good reason, then, the process of designing an airplane seat, and airplane interiors in general, is kind of insane. The New Yorker's David Owen took a deep dive into the world of first-class aircraft seating and discovered that the process of creating a luxury seating experience is a slow, expensive trudge.
The modern aircraft-seating industry is highly specialized. The number of manufacturers is small, in part because creating new seats is so complex that moving from conception to installation takes years and entails large financial risks. It also poses unique design challenges, since a premium-class seat has to create an impression of opulence in what is actually a noisy and potentially nausea-inducing metal tube filled with strangers.
Back in the '90s, he explains, airplane "seats were large, and they reclined, but they looked more like dentist's chairs than like luxury furniture." Design firms like the London-based James Park Associates are responsible for those glorious premium trappings of the modern first class flight—spacious seats that fold out flat into a bed and boast personal entertainment consoles, closets, and more. Those first-class seating units can cost half a million dollars each. In part, that's because airplane interiors are regulated with such intense scrutiny, every single facet of the design has to undergo rigorous testing and conform to standards of "delethalization," the technical term for when an object probably won't impale you/set you ablaze during a crash:
Nearly every element undergoes a safety-enhancing process called "delethalization": seats have to withstand an impact equal to sixteen times the force of gravity, and to remain in places hen they do, so that they don't block exit routes or crush anyone, and they can't burst into flames or release toxic gases when they get hot. Doing something as simple as slightly increasing the thickness of the padding in asset cushion can necessitate a new round of testing and certification, because a more resilient seat could make a passenger bounce farther after an impact, increasing the risk of injury caused by turbulence or a hard landing. Delethalizing some premium-class seats—in which a passenger's head and torso have a lot of room to accelerate before being stopped by something solid—requires the addition of a feature that many passengers don't even realize is there: an air bag concealed in the seat belt.
In economy, the sardine-packing arrangement of the seats actually works to one advantage: air bags are pretty much unnecessary, because you can't bounce very far. (See, packing people into the smallest space possible is just a safety feature!) Those little seat-back entertainment systems, pathetic as they might look, cost an exorbitant amount of money. Because the whole contraption has to be fireproofed and the electronics separated completely from the plane's—so that a freak electric accident doesn't allow a passenger playing a video game to reroute the flight—the rule of thumb is that every inch of screen will cost $1,000. So that tiny, hard-to-see screen with the buttons that don't really work anyway? It probably cost the airline $10,000. And that doesn't even count the remote, which is another couple thousand bucks.
Every design change not only impacts safety, it impacts the bottom line. Almost every aspect of the seat needs to be easily changed out, so that if a passenger spills a drink on the seat on one flight, flight attendants can switch out the cushion quickly before the next passenger arrives to sit down—an out-of-commission seat means a lost fare. In the razor-thin margins of the airline industry, even a tiny design tweak can have a huge impact on the airline's finances. One Middle Eastern airline reduced its annual fuel cost by $120,000 by using slightly thinner leather in just 16 of its first class seats on 15 planes.
Gives you a whole new appreciation for the luxury of those little seat-back screens in coach, doesn't it?
Read more in the New Yorker (subscription required).