Though passengers and airlines say they want a better economy experience, actually bringing it to the skies won't be easy.
Kent GermanFormer senior managing editor / features
Kent was a senior managing editor at CNET News. A veteran of CNET since 2003, he reviewed the first iPhone and worked in both the London and San Francisco offices. When not working, he's planning his next vacation, walking his dog or watching planes land at the airport (yes, really).
Watch a TV commercial for just about any airline, and there's a good chance it will tout the posh features of its premium classes. Recline in our spacious seats, they purr. Enjoy a delicious meal, and relax with the onboard bar!
They almost never talk about the place most of us fly: economy class.
There's a good reason. Over the last 20 years, first and business classes have become airlines' best way to differentiate themselves: Personal suites with sliding doors, seats that lie completely flat, tasting menus and entertainment to rival your local multiplex are now standard.
It's a different story farther back in the cabin. The basic airline seat in economy, coach, or whatever creative name your airline calls it, hasn't changed much over the past two decades. Better seat padding, sure; personal TVs, maybe. But that's it. For the moment at least, we're stuck in a cramped, flying hell from takeoff to landing.
"This format of a forward-facing seat has never been deviated from," says Anthony Harcup, an associate at Acumen Design Associates in London. "Simple things are being addressed -- and they're being done well -- but that's the limit of the current [model]."
It's not that no one wants the mass travel experience to change, but achieving it means getting a vast, fiercely competitive and cost-focused industry to work toward a common goal. That won't be easy. The seat has to be more than just comfortable for passengers; it also needs to be safe and cost-effective for airlines.
"Fitting all of this into one product is a struggle," says Harcup. "The less space you have to do it in, the more difficult that becomes. "
A seat that's slow to change
Acumen, which worked with British Airways in 1996 to create the industry's first lie-flat business class seat (and later Etihad's three-room, first-class apartment on Airbus A380s called "The Residence"), has designed economy-class concepts with major seat manufacturers (and Etihad's current economy seat). Most remain on the drawing board, though it did design Etihad's economy seat on A380 and Boeing 787 aircraft.
One, called the Cosy Suite, has a staggered arrangement that gives each passenger his own armrests, a headrest he can lean against and a defined personal space. Seats can flip up as they do in theaters, making it easy for someone sitting in a window seat to get to the aisle. Large seatback monitors, charging ports and space for gadgets would be standard.
A more radical concept is the Freedom seat, which alternates between backward- and forward-facing seats in each row. Such an arrangement provides similar benefits to the Cosy Suite, but with an emphasis on making sure your shoulders won't rub against those of the person next to you. That also means you'll wind up facing someone at an angle, but Harcup says airlines and passenger test groups approved both concepts.
"They delivered on all the passenger experience compromises, and they delivered on cabin density," he says. "Everyone asks for innovation in economy, but maybe the market is much more conservative when it come to changing the position of people in such a small, confined space."
Other ambitious concepts also have yet to fly. London-based design firm Seymourpowell developed the Morph seat, where a single sheet of fabric is stretched across an entire row much like a bench. Individual parts of the seat can be molded and armrests moved, letting passengers adjust the seat width, height and depth.
Rebel Aero, another UK firm, won an award at the Airliners Interiors Expo in Hamburg last April for its S:two seat concept. Here, passengers can fold the actual seat portion back on itself to form a shallower but higher seat akin to a bar stool. Since this "booster seat" would be 4 inches higher than the normal position, passengers would have more space to stretch their legs and stand up in the footwell for short periods.
Gareth Burks, managing director at Rebel Aero, says he started the company two years ago with the goal of making economy more comfortable. (S:two is the company's first product.)
"The economy seat hasn't changed in 40 years," he says. "It's an area where no one is giving thought to making it more comfortable." Airlines have expressed interest in S:two, says Burks, but won't commit until the seats are certified to meet industry safety regulations.
Can tech save us?
So if revolutionizing the seat won't happen anytime soon, maybe tech can make economy travel more tolerable. After all, the quality of the service, food and onboard entertainment options matter just as much as seat comfort.
Though the first two factors are difficult to standardize, cabin tech is not.
The Jazz Seat -- developed by Panasonic Avionics in partnership with seat manufacturer B/E Aerospace and design firms Teague and Formation Design Group -- takes the basic shell of a standard coach seat and adds tons of tech to keep you entertained, distracted and charged on a long-haul flight.
Panasonic Avionics spokesman Brian Bardwell gave me a tour of Jazz at the Hamburg show. Though the seat itself was comfortable, I was more interested in the 13.3-inch seatback display, the multiple peripheral ports and convenient holder for tablets that filled the seatback in front of me. It felt almost like business class, but on a smaller scale.
That's exactly the point, says Bardwell. "You might hear from airlines that they put tech into business and first because that's where they make money. But we can bring the most satisfaction to the largest number of people," he says. "We're trying to bring a touch of premium class to economy."
As part of its Jazz Seat partnership, Panasonic designs everything on what's called "The Shroud," the portion of the seat back that stretches from the top to the tray table. The most prominent element is a 13.3-inch (1,080p) capacitive touchscreen that delivers high-fidelity audio through wired or Bluetooth 4.0 headphones.
Below the screen: multiple USB and HDMI ports, a pad for inductive (wireless) charging, slots behind the tray table for storing a tablet and phone, an attendant call button (more easily reached than above you) and a reading light (so you're less likely to annoy your neighbors that with a ceiling light). Other features could even include adjustable mood lighting for each seat and NFC integration for onboard purchases. (Also in Hamburg, Thales showed a 21.3-inch HD seatback screen for economy class called Digital Sky.)
The entire design is flexible, allowing airlines to customize a unique product. And in a boon to window seat lovers, the in-flight entertainment equipment box that you're always kicking on the floor in front of you has been integrated into the seat leg. "Our intent was to give comfort and real estate back to the passenger," Bardwell says.
Bardwell estimates the complete Jazz Seat concept is still a year to 18 months away from taking to the skies. Still, many elements, like the monitor, which has an edge-to-edge design and wide viewing angles, are already in production. Only NFC support isn't ready to fly, partly because there's still no industry-wide standard for the technology.
To stream or not to stream?
Seatback video is now the most common form of personal entertainment in economy class. You may get just a few movies playing in a loop, or you might get to select from a large library chosen by your airline.
Change, however, is in the air -- and it's all thanks to faster satellite Wi-Fi. Unlike the slow, and sometimes unusable, ground-to-air systems on many airlines (typically between 4 megabits per second and 10Mbps), satellite Wi-Fi is fast enough to deliver streaming content. Current speeds range between 12Mbps and 20Mbps, though new satellites promise up to 100Mbps and even beyond.
That means passengers can stream whatever entertainment they want to their own devices, and airlines could ditch their heavy and expensive video equipment.
"Airlines no longer have to buy content," says Don Buchman vice president of ViaSat, a California-based company that currently delivers satellite Wi-Fi to airlines like JetBlue. "And as a passenger, you no longer have to use a curated experience and hope you're interested in the content." (Gogo, a large provider of ground-to-air inflight Wi-Fi, is launching satellite services, as well.)
If such a future does come to pass, seatback video and a personal device may be complimentary. Before a flight, passengers could use a tablet or phone to order meals or select movies from home and watch them on a second screen while onboard. In other words: be entertained and connected.
When will they fly?
But it's not just airlines that have to accept and pay for these designs. Passengers will need to, as well. Outfitting aircraft with new seats will cost money, which will trickle down as increased fares. And as flyers continue to flock to low-cost airlines, that future may seem far off.
Still, Rebel Aero's Burks says it could take just one airline to kickstart an economy revolution.
"Seat manufacturers can't build seats fast enough right now, so there's no need to be innovative," he says. "But one airline embracing it would get similar products out there."
For Acumen's Harcup, change will come once airlines figure out how to market themselves in economy, just as they now do in their premium classes. He's optimistic that will happen.
"Something has to change in the industry," he says. "It's debatable what that is, but it's not a matter of if, but when?"
This story appears in the fall 2016 edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, click here.