How an aircraft seat is made: Take a top-secret tour

It's noon and I'm enjoying a nap, fully stretched out on my extremely comfortable bed-in-the-air – cocooned from the rest of the business class cabin by the protective, lightweight, composite-fibre shell.

My full-sized carry-on luggage is stored under the seat in front (why has no one thought of that before?). And my laptop and mobile phone are being charged in the cocoon's subtly designed business console.

The air is ground-level quality, the ambient lighting discreet, and there's that gentle soothing motion you get when you're aloft in an Airbus A380, listening to a soporific Pink Floyd album and drifting into psychedelic dreamland.

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Suddenly, I'm tapped on the shoulder and rudely returned from the Dark Side of The Moon to earthly reality. Now I remember. I'm not mid-flight at all – but in a specialist Japanese aeronautical factory surrounded by rice paddies on the southern island of Kyushu.

I've travelled here for a top-secret tour of the factory building Singapore Airline's revolutionary new lightweight business-class seating pod – each one of which costs around $US850,000 ($A1,118,000) to design and construct.

The seats, designed in London by JPA Design, have been specifically tailored for the airline's new generation of A380-800s. It has been 10 years since the world's largest commercial aircraft made its service debut – on a Singapore Airlines flight to Sydney – and this is the first major reinvention of the A380 interior since then.

Passengers will be able to experience the new "product" when the inaugural flight, SQ231, leaves Singapore at 8.40pm on December 18, touching down in Sydney the following morning around 7.40am. However, here in Kyushu, following my impromptu nap, I can already vouch for the comfort of the fully reclining business-class bed, with the six-hour factory tour ready to continue …

WEDNESDAY, 11PM – MIYAZAKI, JAPAN

The journey to Miyazaki (once the honeymoon capital of Japan before brides wanted their photos taken in Hawaii or the Gold Coast) has involved three flights. Combined air time: 17 hours, plus six hours in airports but with a unforgettable glimpse of Mount Fuji's unmistakable summit thrusting skywards from a dense duvet of grey clouds.

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Far less enjoyable were the tortuous legal discussions before I was allowed to sign the secrecy document, roughly the length of an entire runway. All simply to visit a factory building aircraft seats.

Why? First, this is a rare opportunity to witness the clandestine planning any leading international airline does before it launches a major revamp. And also because aviation industry spies are everywhere.

Commercial airlines are like bus companies operating on Formula 1 grand prix car-racing rules. They need to pack as many passengers into an aircraft as possible to reduce costs, while being at the cutting edge of aviation science. In Formula 1, competing teams are governed by regulations, sponsors, engine manufacturers and the ingenuity of their design teams. The same is true of the world's elite airlines. They all have access to identical wide-bodied planes (Boeing or Airbus) and the same engines (Rolls-Royce, General Electric or Pratt & Whitney).

So what's their point of difference? Routes matter. So do frequency of flights, loyalty programmes, cabin service, celebrity chef-inspired meal options, entertainment updates.

And then there's the internal architecture – what each airline does with its cabin layout within the manufacturer's confines: its seat pitch and width in each class; the room it devotes to galleys where meals are prepared; the number of toilets, and where they are placed. Plus the excellence of the seats on a long-haul flight – particularly in business or first class where the competition between those elite airlines that fly between Australia, Europe and Asia is at its most fierce.

Hence the security surrounding tomorrow's factory tour. (Meanwhile, a similar group has signed the same elaborate secrecy agreement to visit another factory in Wales that is building the airline's new French-designed first-class cabins which will also be unveiled on that SQ231 flight to Sydney on December 19.)

Why should this matter to the majority of us habitually confined to the back of the car? Because in the same way engineering advances made in Formula 1 have improved the family car, so improvements made in first class can trickle down.

An obvious example is Singapore Airlines' touch screen entertainment system, with its personalised recommendations based on what movies or music you've opted for on past flights. Once confined to first and business class, it is now shared by all cabins. Likewise, the airline's "Book the Cook" service (which allows you to pre-order meals from a special menu) has now trickled down to premium economy.

THURSDAY, 10.30AM – JAMCO FACTORY, JAPAN

As the airline's executive vice-president, commercial, it is Mak Swee Wah's task to explain why an already successful airline (it recently won "Best First Class" and "Best Cabin Crew" in the well-regarded airlineratings.com awards) has invested millions in research and development to improve what it offers.

"This business is very competitive, a continual journey of improvement," Mak says. "Customers' needs are always changing. Customer requirements are always demanding. Competitors are always offering new products. Design cycles are getting shorter and shorter. So, with our new A380s, it was a perfect opportunity to take our product to the next level."

The airline has gone back to the drawing board, reinventing how it uses the A380's interior. Take the new first class suites: as Mak points out, Singapore was the first airline to introduce the suite concept.

"It was a major innovation when we launched it in 2007. But the new one really is a suite in the sense that there is a seat that is separate from the bed, making it a little home in the air.

"There are improvements in storage and entertainment, and the option to convert two neighbouring suites into one double suite."

Like the business class seat in which I'd fallen asleep, the suites will be launched on the airline's five new A380s. However, Mak says they will also be retro-fitted on the airline's other 14 A380s – and, possibly, included on the 20 Boeing 777-9's the airline has on order.

"Both the suite and the business class seat make use of much lighter composite materials," Mak says. "Our new business seat is also structurally groundbreaking. For the first time, it allows a passenger to store their briefcase or handbag under the seat in front."

The new Business class configuration also enables the middle seats to be converted into double beds - a first for the airline (though Qatar Airways launched the world's first Business class double bed earlier this year). 

Meanwhile Emirates Airline has just launched its own new fully-enclosed, floor-to-ceiling First class suites, using former Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson as the front man for a comedic advertising campaign comparing its latest generation of Boeing 777-300s to a Mercedes-Benz S sports car. The punchline - as the jet seems to rip off Clarkson's tuxedo just as he announces the vehicle he's reviewing has a top speed of 1200 kph - is "it even comes with pyjamas".

Emirates has also "refreshed" its Business and Economy class cabins on its latest 777-300s (including new seats). But most of its "game-changing, first in industry" initiatives are to be found in First class (including "a zero gravity seat, designed by NASA" and "virtual windows" in the middle suites so no First class passenger need miss the views on takeoff and landing).

So how will Singapore Airline's new Business class seat and First class suite compete with what Emirates, Qatar and Etihad have to offer?

"They will be better, certainly," says Mr Mak. "That's what we always strive for."

THURSDAY, 12.30AM – JAMCO FACTORY, JAPAN

"This is exciting, but to be honest it has also been challenging," says Harutoshi Okita, president of Jamco, before we restart our tour. Jamco (Japan Aircraft Maintenance Company) is one of a handful of elite-end aviation engineering specialists in the world.

"This business seat is state-of-the-art. We've worked with Singapore Airlines for many years. Their requests have always been of the highest standard but this one has made us grow."

To explain, most airline seats are ordered (and customised) by each airline the same way you might order  a tailored shirt or dress online. However, . But those airlines that consider themselves prestige carriers go the extra "air mile" when it comes to first-class and business-class passengers because they fly frequently, provide a fatter profit margin than economy passengers, and sign off on company travel policies.

I'll spare you each manufacturing stage, except to admit I'm fascinated – not least by the absence of robots. Each business seat is handmade, labelled (13A or 13B for example) and assembled by a team working on a precise stage of the engineering process.

Three thousand individual components (from the US, Europe and Asia) go into every business seat (hence the six-figure price tag). And each team competes to have its photo on Jamco's "wall of fame" ("And the award goes to….the guys who built 12F!").

Soon these seats will be sent to Hamburg to be fitted into the fuselage of the second of the airline's new A380 fleet.

THURSDAY, 12.15AM  –  IN-FLIGHT, TOKYO TO SINGAPORE

Yes, I'm in a Singapore Airlines business-class seat, but this one feels positively last century compared with the one I found so comfortable earlier in the day. It's a stark reminder of how quickly aviation standards are improving, especially for those at the front of the plane.

We're flying in a Boeing 777-300, fitted with the "Diamond Seat", considered groundbreaking (flat bed, 15.4 inch screen, direct access to the aisle) when it was introduced by the airline in 2006 aboard its Boeing fleet – and its A380 fleet a year later.

Five years ago, the airline began fitting its "Next Gen" version of the Diamond Seat (also made at Jamco, with extra legroom, a bigger screen and other improvements) on its Airbus A350s and Boeing 777-300s. However, such is the competition among the airlines vying for the prestige market, it's already time for a major rehaul.

FRIDAY, 11AM – A SECRET SANCTUM, SINGAPORE

On the outskirts of Changi Airport, the airline has a high-security facility that contains a life-size mock-up of the new A380 first and business-class cabins under a suitably curvaceous A380 roof. There are other mock-ups of other aircraft, other projects, in other studios, but I'm not allowed to see them.

Betty Wong, the airline's vice-president, customer experience, is explaining the hours of passenger feedback that went into the design brief for the new A380 interior.

"We surveyed 850 business-class customers worldwide," Wong says. "Not only our frequent customers, but those who don't fly with us. We did the same with our first-class passengers."

Regular business passengers recommended four improvements: More privacy; better storage without having to stand up to reach the overhead lockers; superior access to chargers, phones, laptops and entertainment options; plus more convenient seating, sleeping,eating arrangements for couples or colleagues travelling together.

Similar feedback was part part of the design of the first-class suites. The principle feedback from first-class passengers was: more privacy; better ventilation; improved working space and lighting; both a working chair and a separate comfortable bed; and the option of a double-bedded suite if you want to eat and sleep with your partner.

"It was very important to bring in our own first-class customers to test the prototypes of the new suites," Wong says. "We made sure those customers came from different age groups, and that there was a balance of male and female passengers who fly regularly and have told us they would like to be involved in the redesign. From their feedback, we tweaked the designs."

For example, taller first-class customers asked for a footstool in the new suite so they could keep their legs reasonably horizontal while working on their papers in the swivel chairs. The same footstool doubles as a companion chair if a couple wants to eat together when the dividing wall between two suites is down.

FRIDAY, 2PM – THE SAME SECRET SANCTUM, SINGAPORE

How is it possible to take an A380 and simultaneously achieve the following: First-class suites that are 60 per cent more spacious than the existing ones, longer and wider business class seats, and a dedicated premium economy cabin with its own dedicated toilets?

I know what you're thinking: even less leg room in economy. Not so, says Ng Yung Han, vice-president of product innovation. "We've made better use of the interior space. The galleys, for example, are more compact and the toilets better distributed."

Ng shows me the layout of the airline's new A380s. The truth is that there will now be six first-class suites (instead of the current 12) allowing each one to be 60 per cent larger. Behind them on the upper deck will be all 78 business class seats (in a 50-20-8 configuration determined by the A380s structural engineering).

That frees the lower deck for a dedicated premium economy cabin (44 seats, where the first-class cabins used to be). Behind them are the 343 economy seats. So and here's the question – when I next pay to travel economy, how much will I be sacrificing in terms of legroom to those on the more expensive deck upstairs?

"Absolutely nothing," Ng says. For the record, the economy seat you and I will claim if we choose to fly on the revamped A380 is made in Germany. I'm told it is very good. Just think of it as a Ferrari Formula 1 seat.

Singapore Airlines operates regular services between Sydney and Melbourne to Singapore and other major Australian cities: Adelaide, Brisbane, Canberra, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney. See singaporeair.com.

Steve Meacham travelled as a guest of Singapore Airlines.

SINGAPORE'S BUSINESS CLASS SEAT: THE VITAL STATISTICS

  • Fifteen per cent lighter and covered by a privacy-providing shell made from the carbon monoblock used in Formula 1 cars.
  • Seat fabric, pillows and duvets are made by Poltrano Frau – the same Italian upholsterer you'll find in your Ferrari.
  • Retractable "ottoman", so you can widen the foot space in your flat bed.
  • Extra "in-seat" storage (without needing to access overhead lockers).
  • Extra seat width (it's 25" compared with 18" in the airline's economy class). The seat converts into 78" flat bed, with a 50" pitch.
  • Larger 18" monitor (15.4" currently) with 1000 Krisworld channels.
  • Option of all middle row seats in business being able to turn into "double beds" if the central divider is fully withdrawn (newlyweds, book the six middle bulkhead seats, they're more cosy, but not all that private).
Singapore Airlines business-class seat.

Singapore Airlines' business-class seat.

SINGAPORE'S FIRST CLASS SUITE: THE VITAL STATISTICS

  • Each suite is 60 per cent larger than original ones.
  • Four suites can be converted into two double suites.
  • Fully reclining (76" by 27") bed, plus separate swivel chair.
  • Ample desk space to spread out papers.
  • Wardrobes inside suite with ample storage for carry-on luggage, briefcases, laptops and so on.
  • A 32" monitor, operated by a touch pad that also operates ambient lighting and beckons cabin staff).
  • Carpet/wallpaper designed to feel like an upmarket hotel room in the sky.
  • Honeycombed carbon monoblock screen designed to keep sound out, but allow air to circulate.
Singapore Airlines' first-class suite.

Singapore Airlines' first-class suite.

WHO STILL FLIES FIRST CLASS IN 2017?

"There will always be a first class market," says Betty Wong, Singapore Airline's vice-president of customer experience. And yet most airlines don't offer it, particularly since the global financial crash of 2007 and 2008.

United dropped the class in 2016 but cunningly disguised it by copyrighting "United First" as the name for its business class product. Others – some of the mainland Chinese airlines, for example – offer a first class that hardly matches business class on the elite airlines.

Then there are airlines like Virgin Australia – consistently winning awards for its business class – which see no need with its customer profile to compete at the top level.

"Our first class market is still strong," says Wong.

So what is the typical profile of a first-class passenger in 2017? "It's up to each company's policy who gets to travel first class, but usually it is the chairman or chief executive. We also have a group of people who are affluent enough to travel first class. Today that includes a lot more younger people, because they have become very affluent – particularly if they're involved in the dot.com sector."

Commercial aviation began with only one class for an obvious reason: planes were small, narrow and only the ultra-rich could afford to fly.

Pan American is widely credited with the introduction of economy class on flights to San Juan with DC-4s in 1949 and later across the Atlantic in 1952 with DC-6Bs.

However, the first introduction of low-cost travel was the United Kingdom's Hillman Airways, which in 1934 charged up to half what Air France was charging for a flight from London to Paris.

Business class – now the most profitable cabin per seat on any airline – was a latecomer. KLM, the Dutch carrier, pioneered it in 1978, followed by British Airways (Club Class) and Pan Am (Clipper Class), although Qantas claims to have invented the term "business class" the following year.

Over the decades, commercial aircraft quadrupled in size, culminating in the A380. The increased space and ferocious competition between airlines led to business class becoming virtually first class with seats that could switch at the touch of a button into fully reclining flat beds, superior meals and service, and a choice between privacy or companionship depending on who you are travelling with. That meant many international carriers dumped their half-empty first-class offerings.

According to Geoffrey Thomas, editor-in-chief of airlineratings.com – the independent website that ranks airline services on several criteria (including "product", safety, service, attention to detail, food and beverage) – there's a small list of elite airlines in the world. And the finest – Air New Zealand – doesn't even have first class. "It is unquestionably the best airline, by any measure you like," says Thomas.

Air New Zealand won the website's 2018 Airline of The Year award (for the fifth consecutive year). So why no first class service?

"First class is now mainly confined to the chairmen or CEOs of very large companies, so it is limited to flights to and from large financial hubs: New York, London, Tokyo, Singapore, Hong Kong," Thomas explains.

"Plus the Middle East, because they're passionate about flying first class.

"It is also retained – unprofitably – by a lot of (government-owned) Asian airlines. Malaysia Airlines has first class, but not the traffic to justify it. Thai Airlines is the same.

"Garuda Indonesia has improved dramatically in recent years, and is just about to launch a nonstop Jakarta to London flight."

However, Thomas predicts Garuda's first class will continue to be under-utilised.

Air New Zealand, however, decided that with so few Kiwi companies prepared to pay for their head honchos to travel first class "it just took up too much real estate, so the airline concentrated on a really good business class product that is almost as good as first class. That is where the majority of the market is".

See also: Best business class seats - not all seats are equal

See also: Is premium economy worth the price?

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