Behind the scenes at Recaro's new factory for making (and showing off) airline seats
What might air travel look like after the COVID-19 crisis?
Among the many concerns that the pandemic has brought to the fore, aircraft seating has become a hot topic – both in the media and in the public debate.
The constrained confines of an aircraft cabin make any thought of proper social distancing an elusive goal. Nevertheless, a number of stopgap solutions have been proposed since the pandemic began. Most were never implemented, such as the installation of physical dividers between seats. Others, such as blocking middle seats, have been unceremoniously dropped amid a slow slog back toward normality.
“There have been many talks about this time of pandemic, but, ultimately, none of these proposals turned out to be feasible. Reducing capacity by a third, for example, is not realistic, neither from the financial or sustainability points of view,” says Mark Hiller, CEO of Recaro Aircraft Seating.
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Hiller made these comments to The Points Guy in a recent interview during the inauguration of Recaro’s new 19,000-square-meter (204,500-square-foot) production plant located in the city of Schwaebisch Hall, Germany, which celebrated its opening last month and sits about an hour’s drive northeast of Stuttgart.
In addition to a tour of Recaro’s new 50 million euro ($58 million) state-of the-art facility – complete with its own European Union Aviation Safety Agency-approved seat-testing lab – the visit to the seatmaker’s headquarters provided insights about the future of aircraft seating from one of the industry’s main players.
There were no full-size vertical walls, cocooning capsules or other contraptions to isolate passengers on display during our factory tour. But Hiller said the idea of giving passengers, even those in economy class, an enhanced sense of privacy and separation was an emerging trend even before the pandemic.
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One example could be seen with the enveloping “Abrazo” headrests that contour to a passenger’s head and neck. First introduced in 2018, they’ve become a signature feature for some of Recaro’s latest models, such as the popular CL3710 and its successor, the CL3810.
The latter is Recaro’s newest seat model, which comes with optional “privacy wings,” a set of rigid lateral head protectors that are otherwise only available in more upmarket offerings -- such as the CL5710 found on shorter-range business-class seats or the PL3530, a premium economy seat.
All these models were available for in-person testing at Recaro’s headquarters in September – essentially a temporary exhibition area for customers to inspect the firm’s latest product range.
The CL3810 took center stage. That was not only because it’s the latest addition to the manufacturer’s portfolio, but also because Qatar Airways announced in September that it would use the seat to equip its Airbus A321neo fleet that will begin arriving to the carrier in 2022.
More from TPG: 7 tips for picking the perfect airplane seat every time
The seat has been designed with the mid-to-long-haul economy passenger in mind, with features that seem particularly suited to an era in which a new generation of narrow-body aircraft is flying increasingly longer segments.
In comparison to its CL3710 predecessor, the CL3810 is 15% lighter (a difference of 1.5 kilograms/3.3 pound) and manages to squeeze out an extra inch of space (in a like-for-like configuration).
Aside from the seat designs themselves, the pandemic is having a more subtle effect on some options now being considered by manufacturers.
Hiller mentioned that aircraft manufacturers are currently devoting more attention to antibacterial surfaces – trying to come up with more resistant, durable materials.
It’s not just that passengers wish to be protected from exposure to viruses and bacteria, but also that many airlines have increased the frequency and intensity of their seat-cleaning cycles. This is more than the superficial cleanup that crews perform between rotations, and a much more intensive process aircraft cabins now regularly undergo in the age of COVID-19.
Aside from increased cleaning frequency, Hiller said crews are also introducing new types of chemicals. While the goal is to kill germs and bacteria, some of these new cleaning solutions are harder on seat surfaces. That can cause seat materials to wear out faster than expected or fade the crispness of colors in the cabin – a key element of the airlines’ brands that could alter how travelers perceive a carrier’s product.
“More frequent cleaning cycles are, very likely, here to stay, the same way some security procedures adopted after 9/11 have remained,” Hiller said.
When asked about other ways the COVID-19 crisis has affected aircraft seat manufacturers, Hiller said Recaro has doubled down on its traditional focus on the economy-class segment.
“Our view is that economy class will always remain more resilient, it’s the baseline product for any airline, particularly [with] uncertainty over the return of business travel to pre-COVID levels. Economy class is also prevalent in the domestic markets that have done better in these times of border closures.”
Still, business class remains an important component, too, according to Hiller.
One of Recaro’s latest business-class seat models – the CL6720 – was among those on display at the Schwaebisch Hall headquarters. First unveiled in 2020, the seat is now expected to enter service in 2022. Air China has been announced as the launch customer for the seat, with plans to install the seats on its new Airbus A350 jets.
Underscoring the complexity of the seating market, there are hundreds of customization options an airline can choose for this one seat alone. A sampling of those was available for inspection.
Hiller emphasized that he sees differentiation – as offered by those myriad customization options – as one of the drivers in the business-class market. Recaro is a relatively small player in that segment, but Hiller said he expects his company can capture market share from the incumbents.
Recaro sees opportunities also in premium economy and not just because an increasing number of airlines have added it as a new product during the past decade.
Instead, he noted that some of the earlier adopters of such a product are now reaching replacement stage for the seats, something that typically comes after a product cycle of eight to 10 years.
Interestingly, when it comes to new product development, Hiller revealed Recaro is increasingly using social media for research – on top of the more traditional focus groups and feedback from airline frequent flyer surveys.
The firm monitors social media for unvarnished feedback and insights from travelers that praise – or criticize – their travel experience.
Elsewhere in its September exhibitors display, Recaro rolled out a streamlined process for airlines wishing to move fast in selecting an onboard product – something that could appeal to small budget carriers taking on new aircraft.
With three options – dubbed Spring, Swift and Smart – this program is meant to cut lead times for new seat orders down to two, four and six months, respectively. The trade-off is customization, since only a limited number of predetermined off-the-shelf design options are available.
Perhaps, one of these new options will be on your next flight on a budget airline.