Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Airlines Dial Up Pampering for Business Class: With privacy panels and mini suites, carriers are vying to lure premium passengers, but costs spiral



The Wall Street Journal
By Doug Cameron
Aug. 14, 2017 5:30 a.m. ET


Airlines are making bigger bets with premium passengers, offering luxury seats loaded with doodads that could boost the cost of outfitting a plane by millions of dollars.

The new breed of seats for business fliers can convert to a lie-flat bed, with 15-inch display screens, entertainment systems that offer hundreds of channels and privacy panels sealing off fellow passengers. Some of these posh seats can be grouped together to form a walled “mini suite.”

Such seats cost the carrier anywhere from about $50,000 to $500,000, according to industry officials. Carriers, including Delta Air Lines Inc., Qatar Airways and United Continental Holdings Inc., are vying to offer these latest innovations even as they find ways to squeeze more revenue out of coach cabins with tighter seating.

Business-class passengers remain airlines’ biggest source of profit, and keeping them comfortable for hours on long-haul flights has become a high-stakes game for carriers facing a bill of $20 million or more to outfit a single widebody jet.

“It’s become fundamental to how the airlines compete and separate themselves with their brand,” said Kelly Ortberg, chief executive of Rockwell Collins Inc. 

Rockwell Collins has become the market leader in aircraft seating with its $8.6 billion deal this year to buy B/E Aerospace Inc., joining plane interiors to its aerospace-electronics business.




The bulked-up company is now being eyed as a potential target for United Technologies Corp , which is eager to consolidate its own position in the aerospace-supply chain, according to people familiar with the situation. Both companies have declined comment.

Most airlines buy seats and other interior fittings such as lavatories and in-flight entertainment systems directly from their manufacturers such as Rockwell, and France’s Zodiac Aerospace SA, and have them shipped to plane makers such as Airbus SE and Boeing Co. for installation.

Since the introduction in the early 1990s of seats that turned into lie-flat beds, prices have risen as the product has become increasingly complex. A business-class seat can have as many as 5,000 parts, including electric motors and hundreds of feet of wiring.

Development and safety testing adds to the cost, and airlines’ preference for unique seats means production runs may be less than a dozen for the most exclusive offerings, and seldom reach into the hundreds.

Qatar Airways spent three years with the Rockwell unit that is designing its new Qsuite product, which allows four seats facing each other to be converted into a single space for families or colleagues traveling together or even into two double beds. The airline and the manufacturer won’t disclose the cost of the seats, though Qatar Airways notes the suite doesn’t take up any more space than four regular seats.

Viewed during a recent visit to the Rockwell plant in Winston-Salem, N.C., business-class seats for American Airlines Group Inc. and Saudi Arabian Airlines were lined up on pallets. The two models are based on the same frame but have different trim and fittings, such as the inclusion of reading lamps on the Middle East carrier’s version. Company officials said some seats are kept under wraps—literally—when executives from other airlines visit, to protect unique design details.




Just adding a reading lamp requires more testing and certification, including full-scale crash tests that Rockwell performs with a sled that mimics the forces of 16 times gravity attending a simulated crash landing. Parts that fly off and could injure passengers or crew have to be redesigned.

“The regulations do constantly evolve and rise over time,” said Elijah Dobrusin, vice president of strategy at Lift by EnCore, a startup that has been working with Boeing on a new line of seats.

Testing during design and production has become more rigorous as the cost of the seats has climbed. Airlines’ selection process goes beyond the factory visits by executives and front-line employees such as flight attendants. John Cornell, head of research and development at seat maker Jamco America Inc., said it sends sample seats on world-wide tours for airlines to try.

Some airlines even use testing of seats as a perk for their most valued customers, giving them the first chance to try them out and suggest tweaks before they are purchased by the carrier. One Asian carrier asks some of its most frequent fliers in transit through its main hub to visit a nearby testing facility during layovers to sample new seats.

Rockwell Collins employs robots to perform wear-and-tear tests, such as placing a 30-pound weight on a tray table thousands of times, but has found human sampling adds valuable insight. People can break things in ways the designers never expected, said Glenn Johnson, director of engineering at Rockwell’s interiors business.

The company places advertisements in local newspapers for seat testers, paying around $100 for them to sit in seats in the factory for three to four hours. This allows designers to gauge both the comfort and durability of seats.

Rockwell also has employed more advanced techniques to design and tweak seats, with an augmented-reality system that potential airline customers can hook in to explore how the seats look in a virtual cabin.

“We have meetings there,” said Rockwell’s Mr. Johnson of a recent consultation with a prospective customer in cyberspace. Staff also use the virtual world to unwind. “We were chasing each other, hiding behind a privacy panel.”

Original article can be found here ➤ https://www.wsj.com

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

On Southwest Airlines all the seats are the same. They are slightly bigger than the smallest seats some of the other airlines are using. No one is made to feel poor because they didn't buy a seat upfront. If you want a particular seat you can either pay $20 for a seat assignment or they let you board in order of when you checked in online for 24 hours before flight.

In the last few years, SouthWest has really grown in volume. I think that part of what their customers like is that the flying experience is really democratic. The staff including the pilot thanks the customers for their patronage. The staff makes a lot of friendly jokes. The staff includes older people. They engage the customers as equals somehow without being sycophants or bullies.