Rethinking, Redesigning, airplane seating

Features - Cover Story

Passengers’ changing technology needs will change layouts of future aircraft interiors.

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March 31, 2020

Aircraft OEMs are reimagining traditional in-flight entertaintment (IFE) systems and redesigning seatbacks to incorporate interfaces for powering electronic devices that make it easier for passengers to bring your own device (BYOD) and use tablets and laptops during flight.
Photo credit: iStock, Aureliy

Continuing global airline competition demands improving the passenger experience to boost brand support and loyalty. This creates design challenges for the airline interior as manufacturers introduce new technologies to improve ergonomic seating and headrests and improvements to overhead bin latching mechanisms.

As companies modify and improve cabin interior fixtures to accommodate passengers’ needs, hinging and latching technologies can play a major role. Design engineers can enhance the passenger experience and maximize the functionality of seating applications by incorporating lightweight seating technology into headrests, food trays, and fixtures that support passengers’ electronic devices. Focusing on these smaller touch points can create a larger impact by improving in-flight usability and perception of airline quality.

Bring your own device

A major trend – manufacturers are shifting away from installing screens into the back of passenger seats for viewing in-flight information and entertainment, instead counting on passengers to bring your own device (BYOD). Seatbacks are being redesigned to incorporate interfaces for powering electronic devices, making it easier to support personal tablet and laptop use during flight.

The common aircraft seating in-flight entertainment (IFE) monitor, incorporated into the seatback, is rapidly being replaced by powerful, lightweight smartphones, tablets, and laptops.

Aircraft OEMs and carriers are working with aircraft seating manufacturers to adapt their products to these new passenger preferences. The rise of 5G wireless networks will make it even easier for passengers to multitask by bringing multiple devices onto planes, since 5G will help reduce bandwidth and speed issues associated with in-flight WiFi.

For shorter, regional flights, IFE is already being removed entirely, making the seat lighter, while the airline offers WiFi for customers to connect to the Internet. For longer-haul and international flights, the IFE monitor is still retained on most aircraft while passengers are also offered WiFi. Since a typical regional flight is categorized as a two-hour trip, many aircraft interiors are removing IFE and reducing padding, making seats lighter and thinner.

Reducing weight increases fuel efficiency and potentially allows airlines to fit more seats into existing cabins. If redesigned seats can save 1" per row, it’s possible to add an entire row to the aircraft. It comes down to fitting the maximum number of passengers into a plane, while still accommodating their needs to retain a positive impression of the carrier’s brand.

Dual point rotary latches, such as Southco’s P4 Coupler System, accommodate misalignment and flexing of longer overhead storage doors and provide redundancy so that the panel remains securely closed if one latch fails.
Photos courtesy of Southco

Lightweight designs

Reducing the size and weight of seats while preserving a quality experience for the passenger requires careful balance of engineering and component selections.

Passengers’ perception of how a seat feels during flight could also affect how they perceive the quality of materials used in an aircraft. For example, if a food tray falls into a passenger’s lap during takeoff, the seat squeaks and rattles, or if any feature is perceived as insubstantial, that perception may extend to the quality of the aircraft and the airline itself.

Position control hinges with engineered friction technology provide continuous resistance against the range of motion, making a lightweight plastic table or tray feel heavier and more substantial. Torque hinging solutions in seating applications control motion and vibration and create a quality experience for the passenger, whether seated in economy or first class.

Technologies that improve passenger touch points in seating design ensure that quality and comfort are not sacrificed as seatbacks are reengineered. For example, seat designers are now replacing seatback screens with pockets to conveniently hold laptops or tablets.

To accommodate these pockets, some seat designers are creating tray tables that fold in half, rather than the common tables that fold down. Seat designers are working with hinge suppliers to find lightweight, well-engineered hinges that can withstand thousands of flight hours and folding/unfolding cycles without wearing out and causing noisy irritations for passengers.

Constant torque hinges provide resistance throughout the entire range of motion, allowing passengers to easily adjust the tray or table angle or keep it from falling once restored to its original upright position. To further improve the way passengers view tray tables, some designers are incorporating paddle-style latches into these tables, similar to the latches used in automotive glove boxes. This solution provides a much cleaner, modern look, and doesn’t protrude the way the current, barn door-style latches do.

Headrests

Positioning technology can also provide a quality end-user experience in headrests. Designs that contain integrated positioning technology in their wings provide reliable, flexible, constant-torque capabilities that seamlessly integrate into OEM seating designs.

Asymmetric torque allows the design engineer to specify various operating efforts in different directions of motion, allowing passengers to easily pull the wings forward for adjustment, while offering support when sleeping.

Lightweight headrest solutions can be integrated into seat designs, mounted to the back of a seat body or existing structure. Rather than bolting on additional hardware, incorporating vertical slide and wing tilt elements directly into the headrest can save valuable design space and weight.

Headrest solutions that contain integrated asymmetric torque in the design lets passengers easily pull the wings forward for adjustment yet be fully supported when resting their heads against it when sleeping.

Overhead compartments

The drive to make planes more lightweight and accommodating to passenger needs has led to new developments and the use of new materials for overhead compartments. Thinner-walled compartments that use lightweight materials provide additional storage space and lighten the aircraft’s load, without compromising structural strength.

Lighter-weight materials tend to flex more during general use and the normal vibration that occurs during flight. It’s a critical safety requirement that the compartment doors remain securely closed and do not open whenever an aircraft encounters significant turbulence or vibration during landing.

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations require all overhead compartment doors to be securely latched before takeoff; to ensure this, overhead compartment manufacturers are working with suppliers to select latching systems that are compatible with newer, lighter designs.

Double rotor-style rotary latches provide a closure that, in the closed position, fully envelopes the striker bolt for secure grip and protection. The double-latching design provides redundancy so even if one of the rotaries fails, the panel remains secure until it can be repaired.

This feature is especially useful for suppliers considering improvements to existing overhead compartments. Traditional overhead compartments can hold three pieces of luggage; however, airlines are trying to accommodate passenger preferences for more carry-on luggage. Double-rotor latches offers good mating tolerance that accommodate misalignment and flexing of longer door panels or hoods.

Position control hinges, such as Southco’s C6 Detent Hinge, offer engineered friction technology that provides continuous resistance against the range of motion, making a lightweight plastic table or tray feel heavier and more substantial for the passenger, while also complementing industrial designs.

Conclusion

Passenger comfort, convenience, and perception are critical concerns for airlines that are competing to fill every seat on every flight. Anyone who has flown recently can point to a basic change in passenger behavior: Once the cabin attendants give the OK, laptops, tablets, and smartphones are brought out and used by most passengers for the duration of the trip.

Combined with the continued push from airlines to keep fuel costs down, changes in seating design and the use of lighter-weight materials in seats, tray tables, and overhead compartment construction will continue.

When choosing lightweight materials for next-generation seating designs, even the smallest touch point can make all the difference to the passenger experience. By integrating well-engineered, lightweight access hardware and positioning technology into seating and overhead cabinets, OEMs and interior integrators can improve usability, safety, and reliability for passengers and airlines, while sustaining and enhancing the passenger’s travel experience and supporting the high-quality brand impressions each carrier seeks to deliver.

Southco Inc.
https://www.southco.com

About the author: Bob Straka is general manager for Southco’s Transportation Strategic Business Unit. He can be reached at bstraka@southco.com or 610.459.4000.