With record new-generation aircraft backlogs secured, the OEMs are focused on delivery and on ramping up production. Airlines, meanwhile, are turning their attention to how to elicit more revenue from passengers after they’ve bought their seat and how to make that seat a product differentiator. 

It is not surprising, therefore, that the AIX Expo in Hamburg in April was teeming with airline delegations and that cabin interior providers were presenting lots of new seating concepts.

The more inventive of these, from lower-deck bunkbed berths to dedicated “zoned” areas, are not entirely new. Virgin Atlantic and other early Airbus A380 customers talked about offering gyms, restaurants and similar dedicated spaces. But for the most part, widebodies are as stuffed full of conventional seats as narrowbodies, even the ultra-large aircraft. The few exceptions are airlines such as Etihad Airways and Singapore Airlines, which have added double bedrooms or, in Etihad’s case, an “apartment.” But these are exclusively high-premium offerings. The economy passenger typically is seated in a row with little alternative options to sleep or stretch their legs beyond a walk to the galley. A rare exception, Air New Zealand offers Skycouch, a row of economy seats that turn into a bench-like couch.

Among new concepts shown at AIX were lower-deck modules with passenger sleeping berths. Airbus and Zodiac Aerospace have partnered to develop and market the modules, which would fit inside the aircraft’s cargo compartments, offer new opportunities for additional services to passengers, and enable airlines to differentiate and add value. The modules would be interchangeable with regular cargo containers during a typical turnaround. Moreover, the aircraft’s cargo floor and cargo loading system would not be affected because the passenger module would sit directly on it. Additionally, the companies say, the modules could be converted to other uses, such as child play zones or meeting rooms.

The companies say that a catalogue of certified solutions for the Airbus A330 will be available from 2020, while A350 options are being studied.

The question is whether such options can be sold. Passengers in premium cabins, especially on widebodies, typically have the lie-flat seats, working space and privacy they need. So the assumption is that these would be ancillary products aimed at the economy passenger. Cruise ships do, in fact, charge extra for the use of child play zones and other offerings. But would this be attractive, or even practical on an airliner, where all passengers are typically advised to “keep your seatbelt buckled at all times”? If a passenger paid to use a special zone, but its use was curtailed by turbulence, how would refunds be managed?

Bunkbeds on long-haul flights might be more easily sold. And those airlines that adopt the IATA New Distribution System will be better placed to market and charge for such offerings, which would set them apart from competitors. But if a bunkbed or zone is targeted at the economy passenger, which seems likely, is there a price point that will offset and deliver a return on the initial cost of the module as well as the extra weight, service and maintenance costs?

But some novel economy seating concepts shown at AIX have found buyers.

Denver-based Molon Labe’s Sideslip seat, in which the aisle seat in a row of three slides out and over the center seat, giving a wider aisle to speed up embarkation, was not taken up by airlines, which worried about its complexity. But they liked Molon Labe’s idea of a fixed version, with the center seat being set back 2 inches and the seat pad being slightly lower. The difference in position, Molon Labe says, eliminates passenger touch points at the shoulder and hip and also cuts out the “elbow war” for center armrests. The center seat is also wider by about 3 inches, meaning this could be the first “middle seat” to be more attractive than an aisle or window seat.

“We’ve sold it to two airlines, but I’m not allowed to say who,” Molon Labe CEO Hank Scott told ATW.

But not all new seating ideas shown at AIX were as extreme. Lift by EnCore showed “knitted” seat covers, initially designed for Boeing 787 economy seats, which have a tighter weave at the edges, to give improved wear resistance, and a looser weave in the middle of the seatback, to help dissipate heat and moisture.

And Boeing is looking to complete a joint venture with a non-aviation company that knows plenty about comfort on long journeys—Adient, the largest player in the automotive seating sector.

“Comfort is something we can bring to the party, enhancing the passenger experience. When we look at all the seats in the airline industry, we think we can do better. We think there’s more we can do, and we think there’s some room there,” Adient VP innovation & design-seating Richard Chung said at AIX.

So some of these new cabin options, though they might look like pie-in-the-sky ideas, could actually fly.

—Alan Dron contributed to this article