If you believe airlines don’t consider your comfort when flying economy class, you’re not always right. While airlines have made compromises to save money and fit more seats in the economy cabin, balancing those priorities with the well-being of passengers is on the minds of many.
Ayşegül Durak, who worked as Cabin Interior Chief Engineer at Turkish Airlines before going independent, is one of the best examples of the visionaries in the airline industry who want to make economy travel better.
She has spent almost 25 years on the design, economics, and ergonomics of cabin furnishings, and has watched the lean economy trend evolve. Her approach to the economy cabin balances the practical limitations of running a profitable airline with empathy for those flying at the back of the plane.
An active participant and speaker in aircraft interiors innovations seminars, Durak has been a voice of reason among her colleagues, arguing in favor of radical improvements to long-haul economy travel.
Durak believes that long-haul comfort should address common health and well-being complaints: sleeping comfortably, relieving stress on the back, and ensuring better blood flow.
New lighter and slimmer seats are better shaped to contour and support the body, but Durak believes they could use a little air to make them even more comfortable.
Her proposed pneumatic seat back air-pillow insets would offer better back support. Tucked into the seat back, taking very little space when empty, and adding little excess weight, these would inflate with a button dial, to increase the thickness and pressure. The lumbar insets could also be adjusted up and down to hit the right spot. The result would be more comfortable than placing a regular pillow at the lower back, which pushes the body forward, makes the seat bottom shallower, and creates new pressure points.
Durak believes air could make sleeping easier too. She envisions a combination of adjustable foam headrest and inflating neck support — the “U-neck” — headrest, which would help passengers sleep more comfortably on long flights.
For now, pneumatic seat insets face big technical hurdles. Aircraft manufacturers would have to install air-compressors on the plane and systems to distribute air to all the seats.
“The market is not yet ready for it because the inflation/deflation system brings new maintenance tasks, weight increase and cost,” Durak said. “But I believe in the future, air will widely be used to change the shape of the seat during flight.”
In the meantime, Durak has an alternate proposal for head support using adjustable foam. The neck roll she has designed could be twisted in a variety of shapes to rest the head, or support the neck.
“It is simpler, lighter, cheaper than todays’ headrests while providing remarkable comfort—even more than U-headrest in some angles, thanks to its free form,” she said. “It’s a win-win scenario both for the operators and the passengers.”
The In-Seat Work-Out
Durak has also dreamed up a way to help passengers get their blood flowing in flight by exercising their legs without leaving their seat.
While it’s healthy to stretch one’s legs during long journeys, there are safety and security restrictions which discourage passengers from getting out of their seat. There are also practical limitations, like having to wake up strangers to reach the aisle.
As a result, even on the longest flights we get very little exercise. Durak’s solution is to install a personal step machine at each economy seat. These miniature exercise machines would be built into the plane’s floor and hidden when not in use.
“The pedals could be embedded into a platform that is installed onto the seat tracks,” she said. Seat tracks are the hidden bars on the airplane’s floor which help lock seats in place. “You could exercise on ‘seat pedals’ by sliding the upper part of the platform towards your seat.”
The Business Case for Comfort
The main challenge for Durak — as for her peers working on other solutions to economy — is getting the industry to listen. The system is stacked against them.
Seats are the heaviest components of the aircraft interior and account for seven percent of the aircraft’s baseline empty weight. That’s before crew and passengers board, before catering is delivered, and before the fuel tanks are filled. Making seats lighter is important to airlines (and to the environment) because it keeps fuel burn under control.
Manufacturers want to build aircraft seats in high volumes, so if they make engineering changes, they want them to be simple, easily certified by regulators, and easily adopted by many airlines. Also, most airline buyers don’t want to risk the complications of being the first to try out something different.
To overcome these hurdles, Durak makes the business case by pointing out that leaner, meaner seats don’t pay off in the long run.
“Unless we design seats from scratch, there is not enough room to make a considerable weight decrease. So seat improvements must not primarily aim for weight reduction,” she said. “Any reduction in the interior weight is very welcome, with the proviso that this effort should also be taken as an opportunity to increase passenger comfort.”
Durak points out the hidden cost of dystopian economy cabins: passenger goodwill. Saving those few last grams may not be worth damaging customer relationships.
“To an operator, increasing all class passengers’ comfort — including in economy — is priceless,” she said.