BBC News

The firm hoping to make economy flights more comfortable

Peter Day
Global business correspondent

image copyrightAcro
image captionThese seats, designed by Acro, use a thin, sculpted shape to maximise possible legroom

Chris Brady is 6ft 2in (1.9m) tall. So he really dislikes the experience of flying economy class in a plane.

So he decided to do something about it.

Mr Brady is an engineer who got into marketing when he worked for Virgin Atlantic.

He got bitten by the entrepreneurial bug, and in 2008 co-founded a company called Acro Aircraft Seating, based near Gatwick Airport in Sussex.

"I was fed up with banging my knees on the seat in front," he says. "Our idea was to create something better."

Thanks to the interest and support of a low-cost airline, Acro was able to devise a seat that, thanks to a sort of sculpted back, provides more legroom.

It was also non-reclining, therefore eliminating the pushback procedure that makes the individual passenger space even more cramped.

"An expression of simplicity," is how Mr Brady describes his seat.

First orders

image copyrightAcro
image captionAcro has reduced the thickness of its seats by a couple of inches

Airlines think of their seats in terms of their total lifespan, and simple seats (particularly non-reclining ones) have fewer parts, fewer bits to go wrong or drop off, less need for spare parts, and require less maintenance.

Simplicity therefore may mean a lower cost of ownership over the whole life of the seat.

There's another consideration that is getting more and more important as fuel costs rise. Simple seats - particularly those without the reclining mechanism - may be significantly lighter.

Even a few grams or ounces off each seat results in significant savings for the airline, say the experts.

Anyway, after the customary lengthy development process, which involved putting its new seats through strenuous tests to satisfy the flight safety regulators, Acro Seating won its first contracts with the airline that had backed the company from the start.

Jet2, which specialises in flights from north of England airports, had long wanted to buy non-reclining seats but could not find them.

Therefore it had been using recliners with the mechanism still in place but disabled, adding to the weight but giving nothing in return.

Jet2 liked Acro's seats, and a pipeline of orders from a growing customer enabled Acro to withstand the fact that it chose to launch in the middle of a financial crisis.

And while it did introduce a lightweight reclining seat in 2011, some 70% of the company's revenue still comes from those non-reclining seats, and they are starting to catch on in the huge American market.

Extra space

Think about most existing economy seats and you will find that the cabin designer's hands are pretty tied.

image copyrightAcro
image captionNon-reclining seats are starting to catch on in the airline industry

Taking out a row of seats and increasing the pitch - the space between rows - reduces the revenue of every flight, day after day, month after month.

Over-wing emergency exits also have to be factored into the layout, so taking out a seat row may not deliver the extra space that it appears to be able to do.

A Boeing 737 aircraft, for example, has a maximum capacity of 189 passengers, laid down by Boeing and government regulators. With a pitch of 29in or 30in. A seat with a 5in thick back leaves only 25in for the passenger.

Reduce the thickness of the seat by two or more inches (which is what Acro and others have been doing) and you may get 28in.

The other way to look at seating is the width of the seat, a subject of increasing interest as people get fatter. That actually depends mostly on aircraft manufacturers, who do not change the dimensions of their planes very often. What is basically the same model flies for decades.

And when a new plane's fuselage gets wider (as they occasionally do) that extra space may not be allocated to seating.

Some low-cost airlines are using it to make their aisles wider, to facilitate faster boarding and deplaning. Fast turnaround on the ground is a vital component of low fares. The airline industry lives on a knife edge.

image copyrightAcro
image captionUK regional airline Jet2 has been Acro's first customer

Leather off-cuts

Next time you fly, think about all this. And take a look at the upholstery as you settle into your seat. If it looks like leather, it may be not quite leather.

One of the companies making not quite leather is the fascinating result of an innovator's quest for ecological improvement.

The late Chris Bevan was a dogged serial inventor who found himself working on a way of turning the leather off-cuts produced by the boot and shoe industry into recycled insulation.

One day in the lab in his home, he slipped on a bit of shredded leather, and noticed how the material was compressed as a result of his fall.

From this light bulb moment, a new product (and a new business) was eventually born. The company Mr Bevan founded, E-Leather in Peterborough, takes that "waste" leather and turns it into rolls of covering material: processed leather fibres sandwiching a micro textile inner layer.

It meets rigorous airline seat requirements because it's lighter than conventional leather and feels nice. It also comes in rolls, which natural leather does not, considerably reducing manufacturing wastage.

The lesson is that new businesses like Acro can be created out of a personal need. And serendipity can still create businesses such as E-Leather.

But you need entrepreneurial drive and nous to turn those starting points into genuine, viable businesses.

Peter Day reports on Cabin Fever in In Business on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday, 14 December at 20:30 GMT, and Sunday, 17 December at 21:30 GMT. It will also be available on the BBC World Service's Global Business programme.

Related Topics

  • Entrepreneurship
  • Air travel