Are these the airplane seats of the future?

Airlines are spending billions to upgrade business class. But what are they doing for economy?
Written by Tyler Falk, Contributor

Airlines are spending billions to create innovative seating designs for their high-paying customers. But what about the humble, shrinking economy class?

CNN reports on the Aircraft Interiors Expo, where airline interior manufacturers showed off innovative new seat designs for economy class. Here are two:

Recaro BL3530

Airplane seat redesign for tablets

With airlines becoming more accommodating to personal electronic devices, Recaro Aircraft Seating developed a seat design with the connected traveler in mind. The seats come with tablet holders in addition to scratch-free stowing areas and power supplies to charge devices.

"Connectivity is no longer just an option, but a necessity," said Mark Hiller, Chief Executive Officer of Recaro Aircraft Seating, in a press release. "With our new BL3530, we respond to these market demands."

And then there's the Zodiac face to face concept:

The most fascinating redesign of economy seating comes from Zodiac Aerospace. Instead of fighting for elbow room in three-seat rows, the company's concept seating arrangement would spin the middle seat around so that it's facing the other two passengers. The idea here is that passengers would get more leg and shoulder room without airlines sacrificing the number of seats on a plane to provide extra space. The question is: would passengers be comfortable enough facing their seat neighbors for the benefit of added space?

How likely is it that you'll see these economy seat innovations on a commercial flight? Of the two, you'll probably see the Recaro seat first, but neither are likely to come anytime soon.

"The modern aircraft-seating industry is highly specialized," David Owen explains in his fascinating New Yorker story on innovation in high-end airline seating. "The number of manufacturers is small, in part because creating new seats is so complex that moving from conception to installation takes years and entails large financial risks."

In other words, you'll probably see seat changes in first class before they work their way to the back of the cabin. That's because, according to Owen, "premium cabins contribute disproportionately to an airline's economic performance."

But there are financial incentives for airlines to update economy seating too.

Take Expliseat. The company developed the first seat that weighs less than five kilograms (roughly 11 pounds), the Titanium Seat, to be certified by the European Aviation Safety Agency. And while these seats aren't as as dramatically different as some of the other designs, lighter seats would save airlines a lot of money -- as much as $500,000 per plane per year, according to the company.

The Titanium Seat is approved for flights on European and international airlines. Expect airlines to be quicker to jump on this design than others.

Why? Weight is everything for the air travel industry.

How important is it for airlines to save weight in their cabins, even just a few ounces? Just look at Virgin Atlantic which redesigned their food trays to be lighter. The estimated savings potential? Millions of dollars over the next decade. Now imagine what a lighter seat could do.

Though I would prefer a lighter seat with more leg room.

Photo: Recaro

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