There's a New Type of Middle Seat Coming to a US Airline - But How Will It Work?
Who doesn't hate flying in a middle seat? Everyone does, but the next time you're unlucky enough to be stuck in one, it might not be as bad as you think.
The US FAA recently gave the S1 middle seating arrangement developed by seat manufacturer Molon Labe final approval. Company CEO Hank Scott told Today that "We started this company to make flying suck less and to give people more space."
The new narrow-body aircraft seat design includes a staggered and wider middle seat. There's also a sliding-seat feature intended to speed up the boarding process.
Scott says that the new seats have been ordered by an undisclosed, well-known North American airline. The order is apparently large enough to outfit 50 planes with the new seat configuration, with Scott noting the airline is set to start installing the new seat configuration in April of 2020.
Company representatives remain tight-lipped as to what airline it is, but say the airline will announce the new seats soon as part of a major brand refresh. (Molon Labe did divulge that the airline's seat color choice was black, and that it isn't JetBlue — raising the possibility that it's Spirit, which is introducing a cabin refresh soon, with black seats. We have reached out to Spirit, but hadn't heard back by publication time.)
Whether the airline will actually use the sliding function on the seats remains unclear. More likely is that it will consider adding a small surcharge in exchange for the middle seat's extra comfort.
I got a chance to check out the Molon Labe product at the Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg this week and found the sliding function has some potential logistical challenges.
The stated goal is to allow people to pass each other easily in the aisle, resulting in a speedier boarding (and deplaning) process. Airlines don't want a dawdling passenger by row 3 blocking 100 others waiting to board, because that leads to gate delays -- and the more flights each aircraft can make each day, the more revenue it brings in. Southwest Airlines pioneered hyper-fast turnarounds, which are now a staple of low-fare carriers. (Ryanair turns its planes around in 20 minutes, for example.)
While that's all well and good, the unique design of the new Molon Labe seats when used in their sliding mode would require a completely different boarding process that left me scratching my head.
When the seats are compressed, the middle seat is mostly obscured, with the aisle seat slid over its top. So first, all window seat passengers would need to board. Then, in theory, each aisle seat would board. Molon Labe representatives told me that the crew could then could walk down the aisle, quickly sliding out each aisle seat to reveal the full middle seat, allowing middle seat passengers to board last.
I pointed out to them, however, that because of the tight pitch of standard economy seating, each aisle passenger would have to step into the aisle in order to allow the middle seat passenger to slip into their seat. This would appear to clutter the aisle, complicating the very issue the seat design is trying to solve. (I'm also not convinced aisle passengers would be comfortable being yanked into place by a crew member.)
In my opinion, a better design choice might have been to have the aisle seat slide below the middle seat, rather than above it, so the window and middle seats could board first before then the aisle seat is slid out, allowing aisle passengers to board last. That, however, would take away another key element of this seat design. Because the middle seat is set slightly lower and further back than the window and aisle seats (in order to facilitate the sliding mechanism), the middle seat has more back width and privacy, potentially making it a more desirable choice.
(Note: TPG's JT Genter examined this "larger middle seat" concept at AIX last year in detail, though that was before the sliding feature was added.)
Molon Labe representatives said the company has run numerous models on different boarding processes and the current free-for-all is not even close to optimal.
Though I have often thought the same thing, I also can't think of any airlines who have adopted more efficient boarding processes, such as having all window seats board first. (Such changes would require a complete reeducation for passengers, as well as more sophisticated boarding group numbers, and would not allow friends and family sitting next to each other to board together.)
For more on how this will be rolled out, you'll have to stay tuned.