Compact staggered seats set to revolutionise business class

A new generation of fully flat business class seats with direct aisle access is emerging. These seats from Zodiac and Stelia — which are pushing or under 40” pitch, with an equivalent bed length of twice that — offer new choices for airlines, particularly for those carriers that have previously selected angled lie-flat seats or fully flat beds without direct aisle access for every passenger.

The concept of these seats is fairly similar to the early staggered direct aisle access seats like Thompson’s Vantage (on the 767 cross-section) or Stelia’s Solstys. But their evolution into space optimisation through the use of design optimisation, developing knowledge about safety certification testing, and improved thermoplastics technology is remarkable.

Let’s state up front: this kind of space optimisation proof of concept could go one of two ways once airlines get their paws on it.

The first, and positive, idea is that airlines looking to upgrade their angled lie-flat seats or older fully flat beds to a fully flat product with direct aisle access — while maintaining or only slightly reducing density — have viable options. This is a real positive, and one that deserves applause for these innovative seatmakers.

The second, and less positive, possibility is that airlines currently offering more spacious seats with direct aisle access may “downgrade” to the compact staggered generation. That said, having sat in various positions on all the seats in question, there are major benefits to this new generation of seat in terms of personal space. Each has improvements on previous generations of staggered product, both in terms of the fundamental structure and the bells and whistles they offer.

Zodiac’s “Polaris-inspired” Optima hits sub-40” pitch

The United Polaris seat manages to fix a good part of the zero-sum problem with staggered seats by angling aisle-adjacent passengers backwards away from passing crew, trolleys and fellow travellers. Zodiac, which produces that seat, included North American exclusivity as part of the deal, but for the rest of the world, there’s Optima.

Zodiac Seats UK’s head of product development Paul Wills explained the details to Runway Girl Network as we sat in the Optima display model at the Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg.

“This one’s pitched at 79” pitch,” Wills said, explaining that “of course you can’t divide it by two because you don’t have even-inch pitches, but it’s equivalent to 39 and a half inches, essentially, per passenger, which is just a few inches shorter than anything else on the market.”

The seat shown at AIX, Wills noted, “is an A350 seat. We can actually extend the pitch if we want to: what we do is we open up this gap [Wills points to the gangway between the window or middle seat and the aisle] and we put a special filler in here [at the foot of the window or middle seat’s foot area]. So, if we extend the pitch by 2 inches, [the aisle seat] gets longer by two inches and [the window or middle seat] bed gets longer by 2 inches. And it’s a very, very simple change.”

The gangway space for centre or window passengers is crucial to PaxEx. Image: John Walton

“What we tried to do is simplify all of the shapes, simplify all of the lines, make the trim and finish much more straightforward. And because we want this to be a universally attractive product, we’ve also decided, we can change a bit of this if you want,” Wills said, pointing to the upper shroud area of the seat. “Pretty much, that’s the only physical change you’re allowed to make to the product. So it means that we can keep our costs way down, so hopefully we can apply attract a broad audience.”

Zodiac’s Optima provides excellent seat width on the A350. Image: John Walton

Wills also noted that by keeping customisation to a specific part of the seat, certification and recertification burdens are reduced.

“Another thing with airlines,” Wills said regarding Optima, “is that the shells are always the same for each aircraft type. What happens is just this side changes.” Wills pointed to the outboard edges of the seats. “So if you have a 777 and an A350 fleet as well, then things like the table are always the same. From an operator’s point of view you get the commonality across the fleet. From our point of view it means that we can turn the seats around much more quickly. So instead of having a two year wait, maybe you can get down to a twelve month wait. It’s a good thing for the airlines and it’s a good thing for us.”

Stelia’s design-driven Opal wows with thought-through staggered evolution

Arguably, Stelia (then Sogerma) invented the staggered fully flat bed with direct aisle access for larger widebodies with Solstys, now on its third iteration. Opal, its compact seat, is a seatrail-up redevelopment of the concept, optimised for space.

“We can install Opal from a 40.5” pitch,” Stelia head of marketing Claire Nurcombe told Runway Girl Network. “With a 40.5” pitch, we have the same bed length as we have on the standard pitch of Solstys III, but it’s a slightly more rounded shape: a very futuristic kind of look.”

It’s tight at 40.5″, but still better than previous generations. Image: John Walton

It’s compact, yet comfortable — of a similar level of comfort to many of the current generation of staggered seats RGN has experienced — but there’s also an option for extra space. “Our long bed option is an extension of the console, which allows us to add in a cocktail table or stowage,” Nurcombe said. “At minimum pitch, we have 9.2” standard egress. At 41” or 41.5”, we keep 9.2” as standard egress and add on” the long bed module. It’s 2” for the price of 1” of pitch. You get one inch of bed length due to the pitch, and one inch because you can add on the module.”

“We have four different patents on this seat,” Nurcombe noted. “The first one is the 3D shape of the egress, we have a technical patent on the legrest for speed of removal, we have a patent on the recline position, which is the same as Celeste…”

Opal is fully customisable above the silver cheatline. Image: John Walton

Indeed, the recline was truly remarkable. And, Nurcombe said, “the headrest is another patented element, because it’s not just a simple six-way up and down, you have an articulating unit so that it moves up, down in and out. So if you are very tall, or if you are very small, you still get the benefit.”

The patented part is no joke. RGN understands that legal action continues by Stelia against Zodiac for the Polaris seat. Another senior industry figure suggested to RGN that further lawsuits among competitors may be waiting for certain seats to become profitable in order to be able to assess damages.

Regardless, from the passenger perspective, an improvement in the engineering of denser seats is overall a win.

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