On their next trip, Austrian Airlines’ international economy-class passengers may feel as if there is a bit more space between them and the row ahead. They may get a charge out of the touchscreen seat-back entertainment system, preloaded with 100 hours of programming. When the dinner trays are collected and they recline their seats, those same passengers may find it easier to sleep in a seat that shifts their lower half forward as their back reclines. Contented passengers is a good thing, no question, but what Austrian and fellow members of the Star Alliance hope to accomplish with their purchase of a “created-just-for-them”, long-haul, economy-class seat, is savings.
By creating a common seat that all 27 airline members of Star can purchase and modify, allows the carriers to “avoid having each carrier going out to the manufacturer and saying, ‘design me a seat, I want to buy that seat’, and avoiding research and development costs”, says Star Alliance CEO Mark Schwab.
The project was an expansion of a joint procurement programme that has been running at Star for some time. “We’ve done it in fuel, blankets, trolleys, boarding cards, baggage tags and vomit bags,” said Jeffrey Goh, the VP for legal and corporate services at the alliance. “These are the practical items where we’ve created a volume.
The alliance knew that if the airlines could come together they could “get cost synergies out of that”, says Goh, because “we all buy a significant amount of economy class seats”.
The challenge was getting members to agree on the details. “If you ask 10 airlines what kind of seats they want, you get 100 answers,” say Alexandra Strobl, a director of product management at Austrian, a Star Alliance member airline. Six-way headrest, four-way headrest, footrest, coat rack, cup holder, power supply, the choices go on and on.
Alliance members needed to come together and start making decisions, Strobl says. Unless the airlines could agree on some basics, the seats would never get built. “No supplier will give us a seat, a platform seat with 100 differentiations.”
Austrian felt the pressure more than any other airline because at the time all these discussions were going on, it was planning a major retrofit of its Boeing 767s and Boeing 777s in two years.
In an attempt to focus concentration on what united them, members were asked to list what they wanted in a seat. The surprising results? A total 60% listed the same ten features. Half as many had additional items; and only one or two airlines had unique requests.
With Austrian, Lufthansa and Air China as the launch customers, Goh used the survey results to create a small list of must-haves and a secondary, longer list of features that airlines could select from a catalogue. The hard choices made, seat manufacturers were invited to bid. Goh said he hoped some upstart company might come along and get the business, giving the regular companies a bit of a jolt. With biting frankness, Goh offered that with its buying power Star might shake up the industry and reshape the marketplace.
“They are dinosaurs,” he says of the big seat companies. “They have been around a long time and new entrants have been few and far between.” He is especially critical of the non-recurring costs that seat makers charge to recoup money spent in developing and certifying new designs.
Whoever got the Star Alliance business was going to have to agree that non-recurring costs would be paid, just once, saving money for each Star airline that purchased the seats. “If we can shave off two to three million, that is significant. That’s two to three million they would have had to pay yesterday,” says Goh.
OLD DOG, NEW TRICKS
For all his bombast about monopolistic companies and corporate dinosaurs, when the time came to make the award, it went to B/E Aerospace, an industry behemoth with $2.5 billion in revenue in 2011 and a hugely popular, three-year-old seat dubbed ‘Pinnacle’. It came down to passenger comfort on one hand – a two city test gave the Pinnacle high marks – and the ability to produce and sometimes customise thousands of seats for Star members.
“In dealing with the Star Alliance executive team I think it was apparent to everybody that there is no one size fits all for all of their carriers,” says Tom Plant VP and general manager of B/E Aerospace. “There could well be carriers who would say, ‘The Pinnacle seat with minor modifications, that works for us just fine’, and maybe there will be some more sophisticated carriers who will want a more customised version of it, so the way the contract is laid out it is scalable. You can have anything from a baseline Pinnacle up to the full Star Alliance version.”
The off-the-rack Pinnacle is a full-featured, 17in wide economy seat with reduced parts and reduced weight. Already in the market, it will not be exclusive to Star, in fact, it has been purchased for installation on 1,300 aircraft, according to the company’s most recent annual report. The Star contract has the potential to boost that number by hundreds of thousands of seats.
With decisions made and paperwork signed, the immediate challenge for everyone was to meet the needs of deadline-pressed Austrian. Strobl says her company could not wait for the big modifications like elevating the magazine holder above the seat-back tray and installing electrical power ports – changes that will be incorporated on the Star Plus seat when it goes onto Lufthansa and Air China long haul airplanes.
Austrian had 10 Boeing wide bodies it needed to retrofit by mid 2013. “They had a very aggressive schedule that we had to execute,” says Plant of Austrian’s first seat purchase. Ultimately, they purchased a branded version of the Pinnacle seat and tinkered with it for comfort and weight savings, notes Strobl. The priorities were a more comfortable, less weighty long haul seat and self-contained inflight entertainment.
“The Pinnacle platform is the raw features within the seat,” says Stroble, explaining what Austrian got from the B/E Aerospace seat and the challenges of customizing it that faced her team. They could make changes, but nothing that pushed the seat so far that it would require new certification. “The structure is the Pinnacle structure, but everything built around it is new.” As a result, she says, it looks different and it feels different.
The seat has been reshaped. To reduce the bulk, Austrian worked with the UK-based Sabeti Wain Aerospace using the firm’s laminated fabric on tapered seat cushions. The result was seats that are flat and thin but also supportive. “The shape of the cushion can be tapered as far as you need it,” says Strobl. “Usually on a seat back you have a cushion and it is usually not tapered, it has a static shape. Over that cushion you put a cover. The laminated cushion is different; you create a 3-D model of a cushion and glue the cushion together with the fabric.”
THE RIGHT STUFF
Passengers plunk down into a seat never realizing that what’s below and behind them is a delicate balance of shape, size and structure. Dr. Florian Heidinger – an ergonomic specialist from Munich, Germany, who was assigned by Austrian to help improve the comfort of the seats – explains that the cushion has to be hard enough not to give way too easily under the weight of large and heavy passengers but soft enough to do its job, that is reduce pressure and avoid compression of the blood vessels.
“A thicker seat cushion leads in principle to better comfort properties, but a thicker cushion on the other hand causes more weight and causes more costs,” says Heidinger. So Heidinger worked with Austrian to upgrade the interior support on Pinnacle seats, which Strobl says were not originally constructed with long-haul flights in mind.
“We wanted to give support without altering the construction of the seat, which would require recertification of the seat,” Strobl explains. So Heidinger produced a novel webbed strap something similar in appearance to a seatbelt. “The basic structure is away from cushioning into strapping,” with the added advantage of weight savings.
For better or worse, Heidinger has now secured his name in the annals of aviation. “We call it the Dr. Heidinger strap,” says Strobl. Make no mistake, this is not a premium lie-flat seat, “we try to give the focus on support of those areas of the human body, as much as possible. But it’s an aircraft not a wellness institute,” she admits.
In the summer of 2012, while settling in business class on a 13-hour flight, the passenger seated across the aisle from me complained to the flight attendant that the inflight entertainment was not working. “Is it broken throughout the plane?” the irate passenger asked. “No,” she was told, “just business class”.
In the great scheme of things, providing movies and other distractions to passengers may seem trivial, but being left high and dry without entertainment can enrage customers, especially those who have paid a significant amount for their ticket. One of Austrian’s priorities for its new, so-called ‘Star Plus’ seat was touch-screen, tiltable, 9in monitors embedded in each seat back. It selected The IMS, Company, a US based airline technology firm.
“What they want is a reliable inflight entertainment solution,” Joe Renton, founder and CEO of IMS says of his customers. They don’t want complications or extra features, just an assurance that the movies, audio programming, games and e-books will be there for the passenger, he told a reporter.
Unlike inflight entertainment systems where programming is contained in a main server, and where problems like the one I experienced, can take out entire sections of the passenger cabin, the IMS ‘RAVE’ system puts 128 gigabytes of content in an SD card at each modular seat-back screen. If something should break, it is likely that the problem is in the monitor itself, says Larry Girard, senior VP of programmes for IMS.
Austrian flight attendants have keys that allow them to replace a broken monitor inflight so that “within a minute the passenger is up and running again as if the problem never happened”, says Girard. “You can replace the screen in the time it takes to serve a drink.”
From inflight entertainment to lumbar support, by the time Strobel had settled the details and gotten contracts signed, she may have felt ready for a drink. Indeed, she had reason to celebrate when, in the fall of 2012, the first Star Plus seats were installed on Austrian’s Boeing widebodies.
POPPING THE CORK
Just one year had passed since the first public display of the Star Plus seats in December 2011 at the Star Alliance meeting in Addis Ababa. While reporters watched and uniformed flight attendants from all alliance carriers looked on, Austrian’s chief Jaan Albrecht, Air China’s boss Kong Dong, and Lufthansa’s Christoph Franz, joined Goh on the makeshift stage, celebrating the arrival of a seat the alliance hopes airlines and passengers will soon come to love, not just because it makes the customer happy or even because it saves the airline money and lets smaller carriers ride on the expertise of their larger, more experienced or well-staffed counterparts. Even more than these benefits, Star does not want to stop and rest because it is on a journey to maximizing the buying power of the alliance in as many areas as possible.
“You look at the order list of new airplanes coming into the Star fleet and it’s a huge number of seats that need to be purchased,” the alliances chief Mark Schwab says. “And when you can go to a manufacturer and say, ‘Look, I’ve got X hundred airplanes to put seats on’, you get better deals. That’s the essence of that whole seat project.”
Clearly, with the help of the alliance, member airlines seek opportunities to be more cost effective, because while a seat is just a seat, these seats are designed to answer a larger question, can carriers save money by coordinating their purchasing power? From the humble vomit bag, to the obscure widget to precious aviation gas, to economy class seats, the Star Alliance’s airline members are settling in, buckling up and looking ahead to find out where their efforts in this area will lead them.