The Future Of Flying? Airbus’ Patent For Folding Airline Seats

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Airbus is one of the biggest registrants of patents for inventions in the world. Of the hundreds issued to the European planemaker every year, one, in particular, caught our eye. It related to folding airline seats, capable of sliding back along the cabin floor to create more space for cargo.

Icelandair passenger to cargo
Airbus once filed a patent for a far more flexible aircraft cabin. Photo: Icelandair

The many patents of Airbus

Airbus has a long and colorful history of filing patents for all kinds of weird and wonderful inventions. Over the last decade, hundreds of patents a year have been filed by the European planemaker, including 622 last year in the US alone. While most of these concepts will never see the light of day, some eventually filter through to the mainstream industry.

One concept which was patented five long years ago actually makes more sense today than it likely did back then. When Airbus filed a patent for its bizarre double-deck plane concept, it included a design feature that we could actually see working rather well in the current aviation environment.

Airbus, Double-Decker, Patent
Airbus patented a double-decker aircraft idea in 2013. Photo: Patent EP2886447

This concept was to have folding seats, which can then slide back on guide tracks to allow for a more flexible interior space. By giving airlines this flexibility, Airbus believed the double-deck aircraft could be more user friendly, allowing for easy switches between cargo and passengers as demand required.

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How would it work?

Within the document, Airbus describes the design in some detail. It says that the deck of the aircraft would be built as a continuous surface, extending the entire length of the payload area. The passenger and cargo compartments would be separated by a movable partition wall, allowing the airline to alter the capacity for people or pallets as the need arose.

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While this isn’t a million miles away from the ‘combi’ aircraft that have been in widespread use over the years, the Airbus concept has one important feature. The seats themselves would fold up, like those in traditional cinemas or lecture halls, and then could be slid back into themselves using guides in the floor of the aircraft.

Airbus folding seats
The seats would fold up and then slide into one another. Image: Patent EP2886447

The combi aircraft that have been around in the past always required a fair bit of engineering to change their configuration. They were designed to be amazingly easy to convert, with just a few bolts to undo in order to remove the seats. However, that means you need somewhere to store the seats, and it’s still not something you could do at very short notice.

Looking at the concept from Airbus, this process would be made a whole lot simpler. If they did indeed fold up and slide easily, then the conversion could almost be done on the fly, allowing airlines to fly outbound with one configuration, and return with another.

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Why would this make sense now?

Fans of aviation will already be thinking how much this could benefit airlines right now. Over the course of the current pandemic, we’ve seen numerous airlines move to transporting cargo in the absence of passengers, pulling seats out of aircraft to increase the amount of payload space available.

Combi aircraft have flexible interiors, but it still takes some work to change the configuration. Photo: Texel Air

As demand begins to return, airlines will have a tough job ahead of them to balance their available capacity. Ethiopian Airlines previously told Simple Flying that carrying cargo made it economical to operate long-haul flights, even if the passenger load factor was super low. If they had the option to slide back the unneeded seats, there would instantly be even more space to make that a profitable operation.

Although, in theory, it makes good sense, the drawn-out process of getting something as radical as this certified would likely mean demand was more predictable by the time it hit the market. Still, it’s an interesting concept; perhaps one they should have pursued in 2015!

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