Back to basics

Airline claims that its lighter, roomier seat design has cut maintenance costs and could lead to fuel savings. Siobhan Wagner reports.

Virgin Atlantic claims its latest seat design is not only more comfortable but has also significantly reduced onboard weight and lowered maintenance costs.

The seats, which were introduced this year across the airline’s Heathrow fleet of A340-600s, 747-400s and A340-300s are built using a new lightweight composite back structure and covered with a durable polyvinyl fluoride (PVF) film more typically used in heavy-duty applications such as wrapping bridge cables.

As a result each premium economy seat weighs 70kg less and is claimed to save 30 per cent on maintenance costs compared to its predecessor.

Virgin Atlantic plans to install the seats across its Gatwick fleet of 747-400s. The airline owns a total of 38 aircraft, and with between 35 and 62 new lightweight seats in each, it estimates an annual fuel saving of £136,000. And the company reckons it will save £200,000 a year in maintenance costs on the Heathrow fleet.

The airline worked on the seat revamp with ergonomic furniture specialist Pearson Lloyd Design, based in London. The designer was fully aware of the design constraints of an aircraft, having redesigned Virgin Atlantic’s upper class suite a few years ago.

The goal of the new seat was to reduce 25 per cent of its assembly parts, and the designers knew the back of the seat was the best place to make cuts.

‘The back is one area where you can take as much structure away as possible because no-one sits on it,’ said Luke Pearson, one of the project’s designers.

The old seats were reinforced with a heavy steel cross-section. The designers used Dassault Systemes’ CATIA 3D modelling software to prove that with a new rigid, lightweight composite shell such a reinforcement was superfluous.

So by removing it the seat back became lighter and thinner. This did not affect comfort for the passenger in that seat, and anyone sitting behind had more leg room.

‘In some areas we improved the [leg room] space by 1.5in, which is really significant,’ said Pearson. The computer modelling also helped the designers realise that the seat’s original armrest was much wider than needed. By trimming it down, the seat could be expanded by 3.5in.

‘There is still more than sufficient area to put your arm, but you benefit greatly from being able to relax your legs,’ he said. ‘On a long-haul flight pressure on your thigh muscles is especially uncomfortable so you need to reduce pressure points.’

The seats were manufactured by Reynard Aviation of Northampton, and the PVF film, called Tedlar from Dupont, was developed with US supplier Schneller.

The material was chosen because it was ‘practically bulletproof’ but still aesthetically attractive, said Paul Edwards, senior design manager for Virgin Atlantic. ‘By working with the supplier we could emboss specific textures into the film so we could get a real technical fabric feel to the back of the seat,’ he said. The films, he added, were vacuum formed to the back of the seat.

Since the beginning of the roll-out of the seats, Virgin Atlantic claims customer satisfaction levels have increased by 30 per cent. The success of this section revamp has also led the airline’s design team to apply similar design principles to the economy section. Virgin Atlantic is starting to roll out new seats for that section across the Heathrow fleet.

Pearson said he believed good seat design is likely to become even more important as the pressure on airlines to carry more passengers on board in less space increases.

‘I think seats are being required to work harder than ever,’ he said.