With the Covid pandemic ensuing airlines have the opportunity to upgrade their seats for customers to provide a better service. Newer planes with updated seats, newer entertainment systems and faster Wi Fi are being built. Singapore Airlines in November unveiled its new cabins that will be present in its 737 Max 8 aircraft. For those flying business class in particular the updating of seats and cabins will mean more mini suites and privacy doors.

In addition to improvements to business class, an increasing number of airlines are being fitted with premium economy sections. British Airways and Virgin already have whereas Emirates has plans to install Premium Economy seating in 105 of its aircraft in an 18 month refit beginning at the end of this year. However, what are the challenges faced by airlines in updating?

British Airways © Andrea Ongaro / Travel
British Airways © Andrea Ongaro / Travel Radar

The Challenges

During the first half of 2020, a wide variety of additions to seats and cabins were proposed in order to combat the spread of Covid and reassure customers. Examples of this include transparent barriers clipping into the seatbelt pocket, as well as foam inserts and sculpted headrest shrouding (reducing transmission via the seat headrest). In addition, according to CNN some manufacturers even suggested changing the way that seats are arranged in order to reduce transmission. An example of this is the Janus seat from Aviointerors, where the passengers face in alternating directions.

The proposed barriers however brought many challenges as they attached to in a variety of ways to the seat. This is because any addition to the aircraft needs to be certified as being safe in a number of different ways. It needs to be fire resistant and not give off fumes that are toxic to passengers. It needs to be able to resist incredible forces without shattering, creating sharp edges or blocking passengers from exiting their seats in an emergency.

This same assessment would need to be made if the attachment is already part of the of the seat or if it is a separate attachment which is given to passengers on the plane for them to use if they want to. An example of this would be a foam insert which would be provided by the airline to create barriers from the row behind. These barriers effectively create a sneeze guard between different rows.

The Testing Process

The testing is intense. Anything attached to the seat needs to undergo crash testing, which according to CNN has become more arduous in recent years as regulators insist on ever safer travel. For seats and anything attached to them this includes loading them with crash dummies and the attachments and firing them down a sled to crash at 16 times the force of gravity. In order to pass the dummy should not sustain major injuries.

The cost and time taken to maintain these installed additions is also a challenge. Airlines would have to maintain these additions replacing where necessary due to basic wear and tear or misuse by passengers. This would be even more of an issue now as income is less due to Covid., Cleaning and servicing these additions would also be complex depending on the additional attachment and airlines would also face storage costs as there may need to be stocks of spares.

British Airways Staff 10% Bonus © Marco Macca / Travel Radar
Obstacles to providing Premium Economy would also be high as they have to go through rigorous checks and maintenance © Marco Macca / Travel Radar

As one can see the obstacles to updating seats and cabins in order to implement barriers to the spread of Covid are very high. So, if this is the case, the obstacles to providing Premium Economy as well as and improved Business Class will also be high as they would have to go through the same checks and maintenance. However, if airlines are able to show that their improvements provide benefit to their customers, whether it may be by making their journey more comfortable or more Covid safe, they will be able to no doubt recover these increased costs from their customers. This means that there will be benefits all round. All in all, therefore there are challenges in upgrading seats and cabins regardless of what the purpose is. However once systems are put in airlines as well as passengers will reap the rewards.

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