The perfect airline seat: From legroom squeeze to premium comfort - the best seats on planes

Of all the issues travellers tend to obsess about, from currency rates to tipping etiquette, none causes the same levels of consternation as the airline seat. Even a short-haul flight can turn the most equanimous person into a caricature of neurotically questioning Woody Allen. How much legroom is enough legroom? What's the pitch and width in economy class? Who knows a good strategy for snagging an exit-row seat? Will I get a crick in my neck if I try to sleep?

"Aircraft seats are one of the few things within a passenger's control," says Andrew Wong, Singapore-based regional director of TripAdvisor Flights and SeatGuru. "The flight might be late, the food might not be to one's palate, the crew might be having a bad day, but having the opportunity to select the best seat is how you can have control over your flying experience."

Yet it seems that every few months a new dystopian vision for airline travel emerges as carriers  continue to seek to slash costs and squeeze in as many passengers as possible. One recent example showed racks of folding saddle-seats which would force economy passengers to perch in tight rows. Meanwhile, The Economist recently reported that Spring Air, a Chinese budget carrier, along with Ryanair, proposed standing room as a way of increasing its passenger capacity by up to 40 per cent.

Such  radical designs are mostly fancy – regulations prevent an aircraft from carrying more than a certain number of people – but they speak to a genuine trend. "I think economy class will continue to commoditise," says James Lee, director of the Hong Kong-based Paperclip Design, which specialises in aviation design. The typical economy seat "will get smaller and smaller until you literally can't shrink it any further".

Indeed, the future of innovative seating seems to well and truly focus on the higher classes: airlines, like the Titanic, seem uncannily to perpetuate the social hierarchies of their day. The seat, perhaps along with safety, is the benchmark, as it were, by which airlines are routinely judged. Entire websites, including the high-profile SeatGuru, are devoted to its details, with hundreds of thousands of words, or more, devoted to the shrinking economy class seats.

As flying has become increasingly common, travellers, with the help of airlines, have turned the seat into a virtual fetish object without much thought for its complexity, history and just how far it has  come. A recent investigation by The New York Times found that a single first-class seat can cost up to  $US500,000 to produce and install while a business-class seat can set the airline back up to $US80,000, which begins to explain those exorbitant ticket prices. An economy-class seat seems like a bargain by comparison – just several thousand dollars. 

IN THE BEGINNING: WICKER WAYS

The first airline passenger seat, which dates to 1919, was made of wicker to limit weight, and unlike its counterparts today, was not fastened to the floor of the aircraft. Perhaps comfort, or passenger safety, didn't matter as much when the novelty of air-travel was so new as to be basically revolutionary. Pictures of these early seats make them look quaintly charming, though at the time they could warp or become infested with insects, which gives a whole new meaning to the notion of restless flights. 

Over the years carriers experimented with sleeper berths and foam cushioning, but the first version of modern seats didn't appear until the 1950s, the dawn of what is commonly referred to as the "golden age of air travel". Indeed, many of the things we now take for granted – headrests with wings, flat sleepers, seat-back video screens – didn't appear until the 1980s and '90s, well after the sun had set on that nostalgic era.

It could be said that seats have progressed in much the same way as personal computers, from clumsy, inelegant boxes to intricate machines capable of numerous functions simultaneously. Today a seat can be an airline's selling point: an office, a dining room, a lounge room, a private cinema, and, of course, a bed, all rolled into one, morphing at the touch of a few buttons. In fact, it can even be a dressing room. 

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The Seattle-based design consultancy Teague, which counts Boeing a client, recently unveiled a prototype, in collaboration with Nike. for a "customised airplane interior focused on the unique needs and challenges of travelling  athletes". The design includes reclining seats that can accommodate people up to 2.13 metres tall (seven feet),  a self-serve "nutrition zone," massage tables and medical facilities, and sensors to report biometric data. Performance information is available on the seat-back monitors through the wearable technology provided in an athlete's footwear, apparel and accessories worn during games. Like wearable technology, the airline seat is beginning to break down the barrier between man and machine.

FOAM AND FORTUNE: DESIGNING THE PERFECT SEAT

Today, an airline has two options when it comes to buying seating for its  planes. Budget, or low-fare, carriers may approach a manufacturer to buy a standardised product that works like a "ready to wear" line from a fashion house. These products can be altered to match a specific colour scheme, but they tend to be largely identical no matter who you're flying with.  

The second seating option is aimed at premium passengers. These passengers, paying considerably more money, expect more so airlines turn to a designer instead of a manufacturer. "And that's where it starts to get interesting," says Nigel Goode, a co-founding director of PriestmanGoode, the London-based design firm responsible for interiors on airlines such as Air France and Lufthansa.

When approached by a carrier, a company like PriestmanGoode conceives several  different designs which fulfil a list of specific criteria, including the all-important safety concerns. Mock-ups are made using animation, cardboard, and hard foam cut with a 3D printer. A design is then sent to different seating suppliers for a quote, and after a supplier is selected, a working prototype is produced for rigorous testing of flammability and smoke damage. 

Passengers tend to abuse airline seats, Goode says, "so it has to be really robust". "A lot of effort and engineering goes into making it as strong and durable as it is." Much effort also goes into reducing unnecessary weight: materials like carbon fibre are preferable, or aluminum that has been "machined out" as much as possible. "On the other hand there's massive requirements," he says, meaning you can't reduce weight so much that the seat crumples beneath the passenger and its parts. A single business class seat might consist of several thousand pieces. "It usually takes, on average, two years to get from the start [of the design process] to seats on-board the plane. It's not exactly a quick process."

Part of the reason an airline  may elect to pay a designer for an entirely new airline seat is cultural sensibilities. "One of the important things now about seat design is that it's got to be tailored to the airline's passengers in different parts of the world," says Goode, who cites the example of TAM, a Brazilian carrier. Because Brazilians are "very sociable and boisterous," he says, his company recently produced a first-class cabin where seats had footstools which could double as sofas: passengers could bring their friends up from business class to eat dinner. 

"And then you get other airlines that want it private," including Middle Eastern airlines that want doors on their first-class compartments, or privacy screens, because "if a woman is travelling on her own she can't be sleeping in a room with other men.". Even the design of a footrest entails a great deal of thought. Some cultures treat feet as taboo, so airlines can request designs that subtly conceal them. Next time you sit down, observe how the seat organises your body in relation to other guests; almost everything is deliberate and meticulously considered.

FUTURE SHOCK: TOMORROW'S SEATING PLAN

One theoretical design, called the "Air Lair", for the future of jet travel offers more space to business class passengers in the form of a series of tiered pods. But airlines have been wary of these "so-called 3D-seating set-ups," The Economist recently reported, "because they think that some passengers, for reasons of status, will not want to sit on different levels". (One could counter that most passengers stuck in the middle seat of an economy row would happily trade social status for a whole arm rest and extra privacy).

Paperclip's Lee, has found fame for inventing the "Butterfly" design, a prototype seating arrangement that can be transformed into several different configurations. The basic configuration is a staggered premium economy row with remarkably wide seats. With a bit of easy rearranging, however, two seats can become one business-class chair with a side couch for visitors.  This, in turn, can be transformed into a bed that offers 77 inches (196 centimetres) of sleeping space. "The beauty of the butterfly is that it's really simple," Lee says. 

It also begins to merge premium economy and business class. This is not an accident. Lee believes that as more companies use  premium economy for their travelling staff, its size will become larger and larger "until it becomes the [new] business class". The current business class will then become first class. "The amenities will blend," Lee says. "At that point [the airlines]  will need a new class between economy and premium economy."

Maybe, if trends continue,  that new class will simply be economy class before the aggressive downsizing and unsustainable price-slashing: "Retro Economy", offering the original seating comforts of the 1990s. But an alternate vision sees classes disappearing entirely, at least as separate cabins. Airbus' "concept cabin" is a kind of fantasy idea of what air travel could look like several decades from now.

"Inspired by nature," Airbus boasts, "aircraft cabins of the future will be customised to the needs of individual passengers." Instead of separate business and economy classes, there will be "zones that target more individual needs like relaxing, playing games, interacting with other passengers or holding business meetings with people on the ground". Even more remarkable is the vision of technology, though, which Airbus describes using words like "bionic" and "membrane" and "integrated neural network".

Materials are self-cleaning, and able to heal, like skin. Luggage is "swallowed" upon boarding and delivered at departure. Seats are capable of morphing to suit different bodies and budgets, and maybe made from "fully recyclable plant fibres that can be grown to a desired shape". Cabin walls are capable of "several different physical states", including solid or translucent; private cabins can project virtual decor, like the Star Trek holo-deck. Airbus even floats the fantastical but brilliant idea that planes will harvest your body heat, using the energy to power cabin appliances. 

Perhaps this sounds far-fetched, like something from The Jetsons. But think of  1919, when those inaugural passengers sat in their rudimentary wicker seats and shot into the air, probably hoping there were no bugs in their chair. Surely touch-screen technology and reclining flatbeds would have seemed just as space-age – if not outright impossible.  "Sounds unreal," Airbus  says of its blue-sky dreaming. "But it's just around the corner."

Lance Richardson is a New York-based Australian writer interested in culture and less-visited places. He is writing  a book on wolves. His last story for Traveller was an article on how travel can make you a better person.

CUSHION EFFECT: A SHORT HISTORY OF THE AIRLINE SEAT

1919 The world's first passenger plane, the 10-seat Lawson L-2 biplane airliner stations, features basic wicker armchairs, untethered to the aircraft's flooring, for passengers. The seat was soon discovered to be both flammable and prone to insect infestation.

1930 The Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa) invents a safer passenger seat made of lighter polychrome aluminium and upholstered in leather and cotton.

1947 Boeing introduces "deep, springy club chairs" on its Stratocruiser passenger aircraft, operated by Pan Am. The seats, which could be reclined, allowed passengers to "stretch out for a nap" on long hauls.

1950 The standard, light yet sturdy, aluminum-frame passenger seat, on which all of today's economy seats are based, begins to populate airliner cabins around the world.

1958 Boeing launches its 707 aircraft, marking the dawn of the "Jet Age" with new six-abreast seating, built-in seat-back trays for dining and overhead reading lights becoming standard.

1979 Qantas phases out its last 707 to become the world's only all-747 airline and claiming to introduce the world's first business class, something for which other airlines also  take credit.

1988 First in-seat audio and video on demand systems are introduced on US-based Northwest Airlines. Three years later Virgin Atlantic becomes the first airline to introduce seat-back entertainment to all airline seat classes. installing the systems across all classes in 1991.

1996 British Airways, the self-styled "world's favourite airline" becomes the world's first commercial carrier to introduce luxurious fully flat beds in its first-class cabins.

2002 Qantas, as part of a major upgrade of its cabins, invests $300 million in an innovative new cocoon-style seat called "Skybed". Designed by renowned Australian-born industrial designer Marc Newson, the seat converts to a lie-flat bed.

2010 Air New Zealand introduces its revolutionary and novel "Skycouch", a row of three standard economy seats that transform into a bed, of sorts.

2015 Qantas launches its new generation business class flat-bed seat, replacing the ageing  Skybed, featuring inertia-reel seatbelt,  hotel-style "do not disturb", signs, bigger TV screens and permission for passengers to be in a reclined position during take-off and landing.

See also: The 14 coolest things in air travel right now
See also: World's best airline named at 2015 World Airline Awards

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