Don’t tell anyone but the next time you’re flying on an aircraft that appears to have real leather seat covers, you are likely to be sitting on a lighter-weight partially man-made material called E-Leather.
However, most E-Leather customers are coy about admitting this because of an apparent stigma attached to using something that is not 100% cow hide. This coyness persists despite a list of ‘green’ benefits boasted by E-Leather, which the manufacturer says could reduce an airline’s carbon dioxide emissions and shave $25,000 a year off the fuel bill for a typical Airbus A320.
More than 60 airlines have adopted E-Leather seat covers – including three out of five of the major global carriers – but “the majority of airlines don’t want to admit to it”, says E-Leather sales and marketing director Nico Den Ouden. “It’s difficult for us to position the product because we’re bound by confidentiality agreements,” he adds.
At a time when airlines are keener than ever to publicise their environmental credentials, this secrecy may seem puzzling. However, it appears to be rooted in a fear of the public’s perception of ‘fake’ leather, as Den Ouden explains: “The mindset of consumers is they recognise traditional leather and faux leather, with one being high-end and the other being cheap and plasticky…This is probably one of the major reasons why customers are reluctant to talk about E-Leather.”
But he is keen to point out the key difference between E-Leather and so-called ‘pleather’: “E-Leather is unique as it contains almost as much leather as traditional leather, so from a passenger experience it looks like leather.” The material is made primarily from leather offcuts, which would otherwise have gone to landfill. The process to turn it into E-Leather avoids the use of harsh chemicals, relying instead on water pressure from recycled water to blend it with a synthetic “core material”.
“This is a sustainable product made from green materials,” says Den Ouden. In addition to this, an E-Leather seat cover “will save 40-50% in weight” compared with traditional leather, resulting in annual fuel savings of $25,000 per A320. And if this isn’t enough, Den Ouden claims the material is “five times more durable than traditional materials”.
One of the few carriers to have come out of the closet as an E-Leather customer is Southwest Airlines, which included the product in its much talked-about ‘Evolve’ interior. Another is Dutch carrier Transavia, which has opted for a fleet-wide adoption that will see over 50 of its Next Generation Boeing 737s fitted with E-Leather seats within three years.
“We’ve been flying with E-Leather since April 2012 and so far we’ve been very happy,” says Transavia business project manager Rob Hogema. “It has been beyond our expectations and our expectations were high.”
Hogema adds that there have been “very little repairs, damages or spots” associated with the product, and the carrier has seen “a substantial improvement of over 20 percentage points” in passenger satisfaction since its introduction.
As for the reluctance of other airlines to publicise their use of E-Leather, Hogema is surprised: “This wasn’t an issue for us – on the contrary, I think it really worked for us to go public with it to show the innovation in the material and the improvements in handling and durability.”