How Airlines Are Shifting Their Focus Towards Passenger Comfort

Competition over passengers in 2020 is particularly tough for carriers of all types. Most forecasts predict the volume of travelers will continue to be suppressed into 2021, and maybe beyond.

It’s not just that people are afraid to get on planes; economic factors such as higher unemployment and businesses moving away from in-person meetings are also slowing down ticket purchases.

This is having a number of effects on the aviation industry as a whole. Plans for revamping fleets have, in some cases, been put on hold and priorities have been shifted. There’s less motivation to make some upgrades but a greater sense of urgency to implement comfort and environmental enhancements that are also intended to make things like cabin air cleaner.

There’s also an increased emphasis on personal space – for society in general and in the air. Passengers have wanted more leg room and personal space for the entire history of aviation, but there’s never been quite such a visceral, instinctual and health-conscious need to maintain a safe distance between other passengers in a cabin.

This puts airlines in an awkward position with motivations that are sometimes at odds. There have been two opposing forces in the arena of aircraft seating for the past several decades – increased passenger capacity and more personal space at each seat

  1. There’s always been a desire to cram more seats into a plane to reduce ticket price and increase bottom lines (if a 250 mile flight costs $1,900 the cost per passenger to break even is a lot lower when divided by 189 passengers instead of 162 passengers).
  2. At the same time there’s been growing complaints from passengers who are tired of feeling like sardines in the sky. These complaints were getting so loud that the U.S. Congress included minimum seat width and pitch standards in 2018’s FAA reauthorization bill.

Studies have shown that between 2003 and 2018 airlines had managed to cram approximately 8 percent more seats into the average cabin. For example, during those years the Airbus A321 put in 19 additional seats for 188 total, while the Boeing 737-8 had gone up from 152 to 165.

The question now is how much cramming will passengers continue to tolerate? A majority of flyers make their flight decisions based primarily on cost – they are willing to sit uncomfortably close to complete strangers for six hours if it means they paid a couple hundred dollars less on airfare.

Will that change now that a serious pandemic has made close proximity a literal life-or-death problem for some people? When those passengers begin flying regularly again, will a great deal on tickets override their need to feel safe?

July 2020 COVID-19 Passenger Survey

One of the top three coronavirus-related safety measures passengers would like to see airlines implement is “social distancing measures on aircraft.”

Many airlines had been mandating these measures for months after the initial shutdown by keeping center seats open. Several of the major carriers stopped leaving the middle seat open in June and July.

Delta has repeatedly extended this policy; in August they announced an extension of the middle seat policy through at least January 6, 2021. Southwest will continue blocking off middle seats through November 30. Some smaller carriers will continue the practice as well (JetBlue through October 15, Alaska Airlines through November 30, Hawaiian Airlines through December 15).

Some other important stats pertaining to COVID-19 and air travel:

  • 45 percent of passengers said they would begin traveling within months of the pandemic subsiding
  • 57 percent said they would resume air travel to see family and friends
  • 56 percent said they would return to travel for vacations
  • 55 percent said they would return to travel for business
  • 66 percent said they would travel less even after the pandemic
  • 64 percent indicated economic factors were influencing their post-pandemic travel decisions

Innovation in Passenger Comfort

There are many aviation cabin design companies attempting to tackle the challenge of passenger comfort and safety. Zephyr, for example, has been developing individual alcove-style seats for economy passengers. Although the seats don’t necessarily look bigger, they do provide far more personal space in that there’s less crowding between passengers.

Airlines would obviously be reticent to give each passenger their own individual space as it would seem to necessitate a dramatic reduction in the number of seats, which is why Zephyr designed their concept to be stacking, with small ladders leading to the top row.

It’s a non-traditional look, and it’s hard to imagine major carriers adopting these layouts in coach, but it is a fascinating concept that demonstrates the level of alternative thinking airlines are forced to consider during a global pandemic. Airlines that are serious about making passengers feel safe and comfortable with flying again may need to start thinking outside of the box – and Zephyr’s concept is certainly outside of the box.

There are several other innovative concepts being developed by companies like Aviointeriors, New Territory, Safran and Universal Movement.

In the recent past it seemed like the majority of innovations in aircraft seating were nearly always focused on first class, business and premium economy. There are indications that pandemic-related misgivings may begin to shift some of the attention back to the comfort of coach passengers.

Cabin and Passenger Comfort Beyond 2020

There are already a lot of features being implemented to improve cabin comfort due to the pandemic. Most aircraft were already using HEPA (high-efficiency particulate arrestors) to reduce the spread of pathogens before the coronavirus, but we’re likely to see even more advanced purification systems being pushed throughout the coming decade.

Features like relaxing lighting designed to minimize jetlag or help people fall asleep on flights will continue to be adopted in many first-class cabins, private planes and in some premium economy and coach sections.

From the average passenger’s viewpoint, the highest priority heading into 2021 is likely personal space, both for comfort and health reasons. Carriers seeking to maximize passenger comfort will have to begin seriously considering ways to make their cabins a more welcoming space in which to travel and feel safe.

Let Rosen Aviation Help Maximize Your Cabin Comfort

Rosen Aviation is a company built on developing innovative answers to cabin challenges. Our team of developers, designers, engineers and testers excel at partnering with other aviation professionals to create technological solutions to meet the ever-changing needs of passengers.

Call us at 888-668-4955 or contact us online to find out how we can work together.