Post COVID-19 Flying Will Bring Huge Passenger Seat Innovation

In these strange times, social distancing in all aspects of our lives is starting to become the norm. But what about when we fly? With airplane cabins rather intimate by design, how can socially distant flying be achieved?

in-flight service, cabin crew with mask, passenger with mask
If the middle seat isn’t blocked, how can we stay safe in flight? Photo: Ryanair

How can social distancing work on a plane?

With all the uncertainty surrounding how aviation will recover from the COVID crisis, there’s one thing on which everyone can agree. The middle seat will not be left free.

Most airlines need in excess of a 70% load factor in order to break even. If only 66% (or less) of the seats onboard are for sale, there’s no way to run a profitable operation. Well, there is, but that will mean inflating ticket prices to levels we really don’t appreciate.

No, the middle seat is staying, like it or not. In this age of social distancing, for some passengers, that’s a scary prospect.

Already, airlines are figuring out ways to come back from COVID in a safe, healthy manner. Indian airlines are providing the middle seat passenger with gowns to avoid contact, and the majority of carriers are specifying the use of masks on board. But is that enough?

Emirates Hygiene Kit
Are masks and hand sanitizer enough to restore confidence? Photo: Emirates

For many passengers, it’s not. They want more space, more protection, and to feel somehow isolated from the other strangers nearby. In business class, that’s easy. Most business class seats have a footprint of at least a meter squared, meaning social distancing is easy. But what about economy?

How can you socially distance in the economy cabin?

Right now, there are airlines that are keeping that all-important middle seat free. JetBlue has guaranteed a blocked middle seat for a few more weeks, and easyJet says it will block the seat once it takes to the skies again.

While demand is so low, this is easy to achieve. But what happens when demand ramps up again? It’s just not feasible to prevent people from flying, and not environmentally responsible to fly aircraft around the world that are one-third empty.

Vistara Premium Economy Empty Seats
Blocked middle seats might work now, but not when demand returns to full force. Photo: Vistara

In many ways, social distancing is not entirely necessary on aircraft. The hospital-grade HEPA filtration combined with the vertical airflow direction means transmission between passengers is a very low risk. However, it’s the airline’s job to restore passenger confidence, and the only way to realistically do this is to provide some form of separation.

As such, the post-COVID flying ear is likely to bring with it some huge innovations in the economy class seat, some of which we’re already starting to see, in concept form at least.

Shielding on board

The key to helping passengers feel safe on board is to provide some sort of shield between them and other travelers. When this can’t be achieved by giving them space, a physical barrier needs to be considered.

We’ve seen some incredible innovations in this space over the past few weeks. First, there were two concepts from Aviointeriors – the Glassafe shielding design and the Janus seat.

GLASSAFE Aviointeriors
Could glass hygiene screens be the solution to privacy? Photo: Aviointeriors

Glassafe proposed an opaque surround, retrofitted to the existing seat. Cutouts for the passenger’s shoulders make it comfortable to sit in while offering protection from the people either side. It does raise some questions about rapid escape in the event of an emergency and could make conversation with the flight attendant somewhat tricky, but it’s an interesting concept.

JANUS Aviointeriors
The yin-yang arrangement may not be for everyone. Photo: Aviointeriors

For airlines that wanted to take things a step further, the Janus seat is not something that can be retrofitted to existing cabins but is an interesting idea nonetheless. Passengers face alternating directions, giving complete protection between middle seaters and those in the window and aisle. However, the lack of protection between rows left us scratching our heads.

Middle seat privacy screens
The shield would work, but then there’s the same middle seat issue. Photo: Factorydesign

If airlines were keeping the middle seat blocked (which we don’t think is likely for long), then Factorydesign’s Isolate kit would allow airlines to partition the aisle and the window seat passenger with a retrofitted kit providing a central screen. Although this might not take off widely in economy, for domestic first/European business, we can see the advantages.

Middle seat privacy screens
A retrofit solution, but still no middle seat. Photo: Florian Bajot

The final social distancing tool to already have been conceptually designed is the PlanBay concept from Earthbay designer Florian Bajot. This system not only shields the aisle and window seat passengers but also provides some horizontal protection between rows thanks to the high-level barrier over the seats. In many ways, this looked to be an effective tool, although again, it would require the blocking of the middle seat.

Coming soon to an economy cabin near you

Clearly, there is going to be a market for shielding on board, perhaps for some time to come. Companies that can develop an easily retrofitted, effective solution that doesn’t require the middle seat to be blocked could cash in mightily on this so-called ‘new normal.’

World-renowned aerospace firm Safran Seats has developed some concepts that show just what economy fliers could be in for in the future. The first design, which has been developed in partnership with Universal Momentum, is called Interspace and has been designed for the premium economy cabin.

Interspace by Safran Seats could be appearing in premium economy this summer. Photo: Safran

The design uses two padded wings, which are easily deployed by folding out from the seatback. Passengers are not only shielded from their neighbor, to some degree, but can also rotate their bodies and rest their heads on a comfortable padded surface. This is a retrofit solution designed to fit most premium economy seats.

The next idea from Safran is not one, but several solutions, which the company has patented under the name Travel Safe By Safran. These seat add-ons are designed to provide social distancing without losing any seats, virus-free surfaces and touchless interactions from passengers.

Safran Seats ' innovations
Safran Seats has proposed several innovations to facilitate social distancing. Photo: Safran

As you’ll see in the image, the types of solutions being proposed by Safran in partnership with Universal Momentum vary greatly. They range from simple headrest extensions to pull out head level guards and even full seat dividers. The interesting part of this is that none of the equipment requires the passenger to touch it. Everything is activated using things like the backrest recline or a simple pedal action.

Gearing up for more innovation

Perhaps the most exciting part of Safran’s new partnership with Universal Momentum is their new co-creation service, which they are calling Create With Safran Seats. Offered to any customer that needs it, this new design service has been specifically envisioned to develop, create, assess and refine ideas and solutions for travel in the post-COVID era.

With the assistance of Safran and Universal Momentum, airlines, seat designers, manufacturers and other stakeholders can develop their own ideas for providing a safe and comforting environment for airline passengers.

Quentin Munier, Safran Seats EVP Strategy Innovation told Simple Flying,

“Safran Seats is confident that this partnership with Universal Movement will generate value to our customers, thanks to its recognized agility and innovative spirit. Interspace is a great innovation for privacy of passengers, even more so in the post-COVID-19 travel environment that’s ahead of us”.

Safran is already looking to bring the Interspace product to cabins by the summer. With their support, we could soon see many more solutions for safer flying post-COVID.