Airlines are paying more attention to one of the most important and least-discussed amenities: seats.
Seat manufacturers say airlines have a greater selection of coach seats to choose from. And some airlines that are quickly adopting them —Singapore Airlines, Qatar Airways and India's Jet Airways— are putting pressure on U.S. competitors to take advantage of them, too.
"Food is great, and in-flight entertainment stops the boredom factor," says Tony Hughes, Qatar's senior vice president of the Americas. "But if you're uncomfortable in your seat, it's a nightmare."
Airlines have always focused on the quality of the seats in first and business class, a source of much of their profits. But customers in the back have had to endure flat, worn cushions that sit on hard metal shells and people who recline them without a thought to the person behind.
The chance to help weary coach passengers is here. A number of designers are taking advantage of new technology to create thinner, but potentially more comfortable, seats.
The question is whether airlines take advantage of the technology to provide comfort and more space — or use it to put more seats on the plane. So far, the evidence is: both.
There's no doubt that economics is driving the new designs. Heightened competition, tightened profit margins and steep oil prices have increased the need for less weight in the air, says Anthony James, editor of Aircraft Interiors International.
"Manufacturers are really grappling with weight reductions," James says. "Anything that can reduce weight, they are grabbing with both hands."
The lightest seat made by Recaro, a German manufacturer, weighs as little as 20 pounds for short-haul aircraft, compared with about 24 to 33 pounds on many planes currently flying, says Hartmut Schürg of Recaro.
Some seat backs are now as thin as 6/10 of an inch, compared with 3 inches in most planes, says Klaus Brauer, an aircraft interior expert who recently retired as a Boeing executive.
Huey Lee, founder of website SeatExpert, says comfort takes a back seat to weight but isn't discounted entirely. The lighter seats need to accommodate increasingly large passengers, he says, especially if they want to put more seats on a plane.
"I think the driving force is weight rather than comfort," Lee says. "And people from developed countries are getting bigger."
Right now, thinner seats aren't necessarily leading to more pitch, or the space between the seat back and the seat behind. It's the most commonly used industry measure for personal space, and the industry standard — 31 inches to 32 inches in coach sections — remains largely unchanged.
However, Lee says, there's a perception of more comfort because new seats are thinner and personal space often is less restricted.
Among developments and results:
•Thinner seat back.American Airlines is installing new seats, with seat backs made of composite metals that are an inch thinner, on all its new 737s. The seats, made by Texas-based Weber Aircraft, allow the carrier to add two extra rows, says Jim Hadden of American Airlines.
AirTran and JetBlue recently began using Recaro's latest slim-line seats on some planes. Kirk Thornburg of AirTran says its seat backs in economy have contours designed to match more body types. AirTran has new seats that have an extra inch of pitch and has an extra row in some 737s.
•Reclining made easy. More airlines have been buying "fixed-shell" seats for business class. They let passengers recline without the seat back leaning back. Cathay Pacific was one of the first carriers to introduce them in the economy cabin when it installed seats made by B/E Aerospace.
The fixed-shell seats have cushions affixed within the chair's "shell" frame so they move forward and downward when passengers recline. The seat back stays stationary. "Every inch of recline comes at the expense of knee room," Brauer says.
Some manufacturers have seats with hinges higher on the seat. When passengers recline, the back moves backward, while the lumbar portion of the seat stays stationary. That lets passengers behind retain their knee space. Air Canada, Frontier and Continental have these seats, says Tom Plant, vice president of the seating products group at B/E Aerospace.
•Cushion technology. The industry has made strides in cushion and fabric technology that target chronic issues common to frequent fliers: sore buttocks and thighs.
The technology lets seatmakers pack in more foam density to produce thin cushions, says Mark Carlin of Franklin Products, a cushion supplier to airlines. But that also can lead to loss of comfort. Seatmakers have "sophisticated contouring" to make up for the loss, he says.
•Resting your head. Airlines are increasingly installing adjustable headrests, used for leaning back more ergonomically. But many passengers neglect to use them, Plant says.
Some carriers have added wings or flaps so that passengers can sleep without tilting their heads. "I flew Frontier (recently) and enjoyed the new headrest wings," says Philip Novac, a sales manager in the Cleveland area. "I do believe they help ease neck stress."