This snippet of John Walton’s passenger experience story is from the Australian Aviation #376 Edition, speaking about the increasing democratisation of air travel in the 2020s
In ten years, it’s likely that we’ll look back on the passenger experience of 2020 in the same way that 2010 feels like something of a distant memory: a time where we flew without movies on widescreen smartphones, and when the iPad, so disruptive to the world of inflight entertainment, hadn’t even been invented yet.
What will be the equivalent experience of the best airlines today: watching thousands of movies on high-definition screens, connected to inflight Internet that is faster than many Australians can get at home, plugged into USB-C power sockets that weren’t even invented ten years ago?
Ten years ago, the passenger experience we take as commonplace today was revolutionary. Where most of us fly most of the time, economy class seats were bulky, thick and featured screens substantially smaller than what we see today.
They were also quite a bit more spacious on many airlines: one of the trends of the 2010s has been the densification of aircraft, and narrower seats becoming more commonplace on long-haul aircraft.
The passenger experience industry has proposed a number of options to make the situation a little less miserable: staggered seats like Thompson Aero Seating’s Cozy Suite, which places passengers’ shoulders out of alignment with their neighbours, or Molon Labe’s seating with the middle seat a few inches behind the aisle and window neighbours. No airlines have yet selected these seats, however, but the 2020s hold promise.
Ten years ago, all the talk was around Lufthansa’s Neue Europakabine (New Europe Cabin), or NEK, which launched Recaro’s BL3520 seat into the mainstream of premium carriers. This early slimline skimped on padding and support, lightening the load for carriers and giving passengers a little bit of extra knee room while airlines pitched them at the same distance as their older seats.
Fundamentally, the 2020s will continue this trend. Recaro is two generations on with its slimlines, with other seatmakers like Acro and Geven also continuing their development.
The key has been engineering the seats to redistribute the structure away from the knee area, usually forwards underneath the seat pan, and to do away with recline in favour of seats that are “pre-reclined” at the angle at which the armrest button would have allowed them to move backwards.
What this means in the real world — as a recent pair of four-hour flights on Euro-LCCs Vueling and Jet2 confirmed — is that even at the very tightest of pitches there’s less knee contact.
The 2020s will continue this trend on short-haul and low-cost operations as long as regulators allow airframers and airlines to keep adding rows of seats to existing aircraft. But the decade will also be one of the evolution of the fully-featured slimline on long-haul aircraft, which are generally less frequently refurbished down back.
Using the knowledge gleaned from a decade of short-haul slimlines, the latest generation of seats starting to trickle out of the innovative seatmakers will expand on their ability to offer airlines the choice of a similar or improved level of knee and leg space at a pitch of 1-2 inches less than previously, even on articulated seats that recline and provide extra support.
Think the Recaro CL3710, seen on dozens of airlines at this point, but with even more space at shin and knee level. The trade-off, however, is that at eye level the space between your head and the seat in front of you is still an inch less.
But the biggest picture story of the 2020s will be the increasing democratisation of air travel, as low-cost carriers in their infancy during the 2010s grow up, new airlines appear, and full-service airlines continue to reach downwards to compete. It may not all be fully-featured seats and HD movies: the LCC revolution means ultra-narrow seats and often a BYO distraction policy.
But whole populations that could never have afforded the enriching — metaphorically and literally — the experience of travelling the world by air will begin to spread their wings and fly. And that’s going to make for a truly fascinating decade.