Factors driving the perception of inflight comfort and discomfort

Airlines want to keep passengers comfortable, but the constraints of the cabin limit design options. A host of factors, both internal and external can affect how passengers experience the same product under different circumstances. How can designers ensure that passenger perception of comfort remains high?

During the recent Red Cabin Innovation and Aircraft Seating conference in Hamburg, Recaro Aircraft Seating hosted a working group to tackle this question.  One of the key points made at the workshop is that comfort and discomfort are not opposite ends of a spectrum. They are two distinct and co-existing experiences, perceived through different stimuli, which require balance.

“Comfort is more a mind aspect and discomfort is more related to the physiological problems that you have: the pressure points and the things you can measure,” explained Oliver Forgatsch, who works as head of design, ergonomics & prototyping at Recaro Aircraft Seating. “Both are existing in parallel. There is always a certain comfort level and a discomfort level.”

In short, the perception of comfort that resides in the mind is more abstract and influenced by individual preferences around elements like relaxation, convenience and well-being. The perception of discomfort, including pain, stiffness and fatigue, resides in the body and is easier to measure. Discomfort can be attributed to physiological and biomechanical factors which can be addressed by the structural design of the seat and the cabin environment.

Both will be present throughout the journey to one degree or another, but discomfort will cloud a passenger’s ability to perceive comfort elements. It is possible to design a seat that structurally reduces discomfort, but a passenger who has elevated levels of stress may not sense the physical improvements as readily as a passenger who is at ease.

Recaro head of design, ergonomics and prototyping Oliver Forgatsch discussed the perception of comfort and discomfort. Image: Marisa Garcia

There are also a host of situational, environmental and mechanical factors driving perception of both comfort and discomfort. “We are captive in an aluminum tube flying 800 kilometers per hour through space. We are breathing the air of our neighbors and having direct contact. There’s humidity. There’s the temperature in the room, the vibration from the aircraft and the light in the cabin. Then, at the center of this, we have the seat,” Forgatsch said.

Some of the elements of the seat which can manage perception of discomfort include posture; pressure distribution; body support; the curvature, softness and usability of the seat; and how passengers interact with the seat, in addition to the overall aesthetics.

“The aesthetics definitely affect the mind aspect, from my point of view, influencing your perception of the seat just by looking at it,” Forgatsch suggested.

Importantly, aesthetics go beyond the original design stage. A pleasing appearance must be maintained throughout the product lifecycle with regular maintenance and cleanliness.


A customer’s expectation of a brand can also influence how they perceive the product. For example, a passenger who is flying an airline with a negative brand reputation may be surprised that the product exceeds expectations, or they may sense points of discomfort more intensely because these confirm a pre-existing negative bias, according to the seatmaker.

Passengers flying on an airline with a positive brand reputation may ignore lighter elements of discomfort because they are traveling with a pre-existing positive bias.

The cabin experience as a whole – in terms of structure, soft elements and service – needs to surprise and delight, rising above the consumer’s pre-existing bias.

Even before passengers enter the aircraft, friction points en route and at the airport can elevate stress and also influence the perception of comfort. Therefore, airlines must design the elements of the journey within their control, from the ground up, to encourage a sense of calm and well-being.

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