Smaller, better, lighter: The evolution of airline seating

Jan 5, 2020

This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

Creating a comfortable seat doesn’t seem so difficult. Walk into any manicure joint and you’ll find massage chairs lined up and ready for you to settle in. Automaker Nissan says its zero-gravity seats provide continuous support from your hips to your shoulders.

Now think about your most recent trip in an airline economy cabin. Comfortable may not be the first adjective that comes to mind.

In fairness, airlines have a lot of design pressures and regulations. When the first commercial aircraft took off a hundred years ago, passengers were in wicker chairs that weren’t even bolted in. Today, airplane seats are required to meet a 12-second vertical burn test and withstand force 16 times that of gravity. Plus, they must be lightweight with a foam cushion suitable as a flotation device and be durable enough to withstand jumping toddlers and heavy sitters and snoozers.

Sign up for the free daily TPG newsletter for more travel tips!

Add the need to squeeze as many paying passengers as possible into the cabin in order to make money and innovation is a difficult process.

The method to the madness

Primarily made of fire-resistant aluminum, seat frames are designed to protect and serve. Blocks of polyurethane foam are attached to the aluminum and wrapped with treated upholstery that gives you a fighting chance to survive an airplane crash and fire.

We should stop complaining, right? However, if you’ve ever taken a 15-hour flight from Dubai to Houston in the middle seat of a 777 – or even a three-hour Dallas-to-Detroit flight – you know that aircraft comfort is less than optimal.

But before you rhapsodize about the golden age of flying 50 years ago, remember that tickets were financially out of reach for many people. Today, economy class seating is not plush, but travel is more affordable for all.

(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
The early days of flight were a bit different than it is today. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, “The current trend is pointing in one direction: To reduce fuel consumption, airlines are looking for more ways to reduce weight in aircraft interiors,” says RECARO, one of the top global players in the manufacture of seats for all kinds of commercial uses. “This is especially true in the case of economy class seats.”

The RECARO BL3530 seat, for instance, weighs just over 22 pounds. That’s probably a lot heavier than the wicker seats on those first Lawson airliners, but a heck of a lot safer.

Lighter materials are on the rise. Singapore Airlines’ newest business-class seats are surrounded with a privacy shell made from the same ultralight carbon monoblock used in Formula 1 cars. And the seat fabric, pillows and duvets are made by Poltrano Frau, which also upholsters for Ferrari.

How have commercial airline seats changed?

In the early days of flying, passenger airplane seats could withstand a G-force of 6 g — six times the force of gravity. In the 1950s, the requirement was raised to 9 g, and seats today are required to withstand 16 g.

Seats are designed for impact and manufacturers have learned how to use lighter materials that are also more durable. There are psychological constraints to impact design, however. Consider infant car seats: They’re positioned backward for optimal protection of a baby’s spine. In an airplane, most people don’t want to – or won’t – fly backward. Thus, commercial airline seats are designed to protect you as best as they can.

Your narrow, rigid seat is directly correlated to your survival upon impact. Consider the following information from Boeing:

  • In December 2008, an airplane crashed while taking off, ending up on fire in a 40-foot-deep ravine several hundred yards from the runway. There were no fatalities among the 115 passengers and crew, even though the metal fuselage had been breached by fire.
  • In December 2009, an airplane carrying 154 passengers and crew overran the runway during a landing in heavy rain and broke apart. There were no fatalities.
  • In August 2010, an airplane crashed while attempting to land in poor weather, breaking into three pieces on impact. There were 125 survivors among the 127 passengers and crew.

In the event of a crash or emergency landing a seat must hold the passenger steady but not obstruct the way out of the aircraft. On top of that, airlines must meet a federal standard for fire-retardant materials. (Photo by Johan Marengrd/EyeEm/Getty Images)

Now, there are far more restrictions on airplane seat safety. (Photo by Johan Marengrd/EyeEm/Getty Images)In the private aircraft market, there is more flexibility. “The closer you get to commercial airlines, the more strict the flammability rules,” says designer Edese Doret. “Private aircraft can use carbon fiber, wood and other materials. We borrow heavily from automotive, especially with smaller aircraft like Gulfstream, Embraer, and Challengers. In particular, with seat design and trim.”

The who’s who of aircraft seating

According to Technavio, the leading five commercial vendors for aircraft seating are Aviointeriors, Geven, RECARO, Rockwell Collins (B/E Aerospace), and Zodiac Aerospace. These companies and smaller outliers offer an array of designs that employ high-tech equipment that also meets FAA requirements. It’s a long process from prototype development to certification and then manufacturing.

Some aircraft seats even have an afterlife. Air France has partnered with French company Bilum to recover seating materials and upcycle them into bags and accessories.

Featured photo by urbazon/Getty Images.

Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card

Earn 90,000 bonus miles and 10,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new card in the first three months of card membership. Offer ends 11/10/2021.

With Status Boost™, earn 10,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, up to two times per year getting you closer to Medallion Status. Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels, 2X Miles at restaurants and at U.S. supermarkets and earn 1X Mile on all other eligible purchases. Terms Apply.

Apply Now
More Things to Know
  • Limited Time Offer: Earn 90,000 Bonus Miles and 10,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Offer expires 11/10/2021.
  • Earn up to 20,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) with Status Boost® per year. After you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, you can earn 10,000 MQMs two times per year, getting you closer to Medallion® Status. MQMs are used to determine Medallion® Status and are different than miles you earn toward flights.
  • Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels.
  • Earn 2X Miles at restaurants worldwide, including takeout and delivery and at U.S. supermarkets.
  • Earn 1X Miles on all other eligible purchases.
  • Receive a Domestic Main Cabin round-trip companion certificate each year upon renewal of your Card. *Payment of the government imposed taxes and fees of no more than $75 for roundtrip domestic flights (for itineraries with up to four flight segments) is required. Baggage charges and other restrictions apply. See terms and conditions for details.
  • Enjoy your first checked bag free on Delta flights.
  • Fee Credit for Global Entry or TSA Pre✓®.
  • Enjoy an exclusive rate of $39 per person per visit to enter the Delta Sky Club® for you and up to two guests when traveling on a Delta flight.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • $250 Annual Fee.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees
Regular APR
15.74%-24.74% Variable
Annual Fee
$250
Balance Transfer Fee
N/A
Recommended Credit
Excellent/Good
Terms and restrictions apply. See rates & fees.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.