Confessions of a Boeing Airplane Seat Engineer

I don’t know if laptops have gotten taller or I’ve gained, um, girth, but I can remember ten years ago flying around the United States and being able to comfortably work on my laptop until my battery ran out. Now there’s barely room for an open book, let alone some 17-inch marvel of digital engineering. Intuitively, airlines are adding more seats and more rows to offset the ever-rising cost of running an airline, but getting the inside scoop helps clarify exactly what’s been going on with this price-sensitive commoditized business.

That’s why when my friend and fellow writer Michael J. wrote recently about his experiences as a seat design engineering at Boeing, I couldn’t resist getting his permission to include it here on my weblog for everyone to read…

As a former Boeing seat engineer, I’ve heard my share of comments and
suggestions about size, spacing, and amenities…..

Everyone wants more recline on their airplane seats when they’re travelling, but it does push back into the space of the
next seat (and endangers the top of lots of laptops – and knees).
Several years ago, American Airlines removed 1 or 2 seat rows on most of their
airplanes to increase the pitch (distance between the same point on each
seat row) to try to build customer loyalty. Alaska Airlines has always
preconfigured their airplanes to do the same. A typical AA pitch is 37″;
a typical AS pitch is 34″; typical United States domestic economy is 31″ (In contrast, some
of the UK charters, last I knew (Monarch, AirUK), have an economy pitch
of 28″ – and as low as 26″).

The recline in front of exit rows are typically limited, as you know, but that
depends on the actual location of the seats, and the regulatory minimums
for emergency egress (ease of exit).

Every time Boeing or Airbus come out with a new airplane, they try
finding ways to help airlines maximize seat widths. Unfortunately, some
airlines will take advantage to sqeeze in an extra column of seats –
witness the 10-across seating on Boeing 777s (and 9-across on the slightly
narrower Airbus A340s).

As for the upgraded economy seats, the current trend was started by EVA
of Taiwan in the early 90s, where they configured some of their Boeing 747s
with 8 abreast seating (standard 747 economy is 10 abreast), 38″ pitch,
and seat back video systems.

Some of the major European airlines (BA/SK come to mind, especially their Inter-European service) have
traditionally differentiated business and economy class with only
upgraded service – the seats were identical. Then came the convertable
seats, where 6 across seating on a Boeing 737 could be easily converted to 5
across with the twist of a lever – converting the typical 17″ width seat
to 19″ widths.

On-board interactive video was my introduction into the world of networks, actually. Video on demand first appeared in seat back (and seat arm) monitors in the mid-1990s. Unfortunately, the monitors, servers, hubs, cables, etc,
added several thousand pounds to each plane (each extra pound adds
$100-$400 in operating cost per year). Naturally, that was a moderate
fiasco.

The next step is coming, high-speed Internet access on the airplane.
Because of weight issues, though, I’m sure that Internet (and newer tech cell phone – probably CDMA) access will be wireless.

Thanks for sharing this information, Michael. It’s very interesting indeed…

14 comments on “Confessions of a Boeing Airplane Seat Engineer

  1. Dave I’m a designer and inventor with over 70 patents in my portfolio with a few more pending.
    Two recent patent pendings cover air plane seats.
    I would like to communicate with Michael Jang.
    Could you please arrange this.
    Thank you.
    Luc

  2. hi Dave i have an idea on seat design but dont know who or where to take it, i belive it will cut down DVT and make the long fligts more comfortable.

  3. Hi Dave
    I also cover new airplane seat design with patent.Contact me with Michael Jang.
    Thank you
    Bosko

  4. Mr. Taylor,
    We are high school students, and we are doing an end of the year project on airplane seat comfort for economy class seats. We would like to contact you and get more information about what you do.
    Thank you,
    Katy and Stacey

  5. Hi Dave, I have a design idea for a retro fit. I have no patents just a good idea, where should I take it?

  6. I have a simple idea for airplane seats that should add ease of movement especially for coach passengers. No patent, but would like to know what is already out there. Where do I start to look or to do research?
    Thanks.

  7. Hi,
    I was the person at BA that came up with the idea of 5 seats across with a sideways converter seat in shorthaul business class. It’s over 15 years ago now.
    Did you work on the design?
    I’d be interested to chat. You might be interested to what customer and business knowledge let me to come up with the idea?
    There was a lot of talk about a bigger seat, but it was about space and there was no way of commercially accepting only 4 seats across (a loss of 2 premium sales per row) with a traditional 3 into 2 converter seat on both sides.
    Can you imagine the initial derision from people who said the aircraft would tip on one side and that it couldn’t be done.
    But I’d seen I’d seen 3 by 2 configurations on smaller aircraft and thought about whether that could be done on a 737.
    “And what about the position of the aisle as you pass to Economy? they said.” I thought for a while and said “Well, the position of the aisle changes”.
    Simon Green.

  8. Dear Mr. Taylor,
    We are a group of engineering students currently studying in the University of Malta who have recently been assigned a group project to design an airline seat. We are opting to design an economy class seat. We would really appreciate it if we could contact you so that we can learn from your expertise and improve our final product.
    Thanks a lot in advance.
    Regards,
    Ian, Daniel, Matthew, Clive and Keith

  9. I have a design idea for a plane seat that will make the travel more confortable. I need information about patenting the idea and taking it for testing.

  10. Hello,
    I have questions regarding seat design and research for aviators. I will be an Air Force flight surgeon and I am looking into operator fatigue and seat design. Can you connect me with someone or people that I could communicate to find literature on this subject.
    Thanks

  11. There’s nothing I like more than to have a good sleep on a long haul flight in economy class. With some modest mechanical adjustments to the design of the seat, this could easily be accomplished and remain compliant. I have successfully trialed this. Furthermore, I would consider joining with a creditable party or parties to to take the project to its logical conclusion.

  12. Dear Dave,
    I own a company who have successfully developed the “new big thing” in all types of vehicle seating applications. I would love to be put in touch with Michael Jang.
    We can make all journeys more comfortable, safer and weigh less..

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