Aircraft Cabin Design

October 21, 2009

I want to meet some designers. The ones who design an itsy-bitsy whimsy of cloth and call it a bikini and sell it for four-figure prices? No. The ones who shape the way stage props are used? The man who printed the words “designer hankies” on a batch of six pieces of cloth and put an obscene price on the carton? Not in the least. I want to meet….the people who design aircraft seats…in cattle class.

I can just picture a team of aircraft economy-class seat designers getting together in whatever hell-hole they congregate in. Greetings and evil-looking grins are exchanged all around as they settle into their large, roomy, luxurious,soft-as-down armchairs to exchange notes.

“I found that I could actually lessen the space between the knees of the passenger and the seat in front by a couple of inches more!” one opens the conversation with glee.

“Well, you won’t believe this, but I have made the seat recline a little less, so that by no means will a passenger drop off unless the stewardess physically conks him on the head!” intones another proudly.

“Yes, that’s good,” agrees the third. “If the passenger drops off to sleep, how will they eat those little plastic meals and keep the airline caterers (all of whom belong to the Borgia family) in business?”

“Don’t forget, it’s the awake passenger who buys all the junkola stuff that airlines sell on board….generating more revenue,” adds yet another designer.

At this point, everyone notices one particular designer made a big fuss of. “What did he do?” asks one in hushed tones. “ mean, you didn’t hear about it?” says his neighbour in surprise. “He’s the one who made the center armrest in the aisle group of four seats fixed…so that even if a passenger finds the other three seats free, she cannot stretch out and go to sleep!”

“Oh!” says the first one in awe. “Wow, what genius to think of that! I knew the guy who made the armrests between the two seats…aisle and window….fixed, but to make FOUR seats unusable for comfort…that’s really something!”

“Well,” simpers the second designer, “I must say that I am the one who designed those dinky little video consoles in which the passenger can mostly see only her face when the cabin lights are on, instead of the movie she wants to watch.”

(Here’s the reflection of the face overshadowing the movie)


“Aha! But there, on your left, sits the guy who made sure that the touchscreen doesn’t work half the time when the passenger wants to run the movie, pause it, or go to another part of the menu!”

“Oh,” said the designer, “each of us is sometimes able to refine on what the other has done. But there are some real geniuses at work sometimes! Remember the guy who wrote the cabin announcement about storing carry-on baggage under the seat in front, and then invented the little electrical boxes that actually sit in that space, so that the passenger cannot fit in anything larger than a bag the size of a mouse?”

“Yes!” said his friend reverently. “My personal favourite, of course, is the person who designed the seats just in front of the toilet, which won’t lean back at all, and where the passenger has all the delights…he may have ordered Chanel No.5 from the duty-free, but he will actually be smelling Channel No. 1 and 2.”

“You must agree, though,” said the most experienced designer, that nothing can come close to that all-time invention, the 3-5-3 configuration. Imagine the passenger who has the middle seat in the aisle row….no view out of the window, no access to the aisle…and the passenger in the middle seat in the aisle is TWO seats away from either aisle. Just think! He will have to negotiate all the debris of blankets, magazines, pieces of meal (this is where the word piecemeal comes from), plastic cutlery that has fallen, and other passengers’ shoes (often with their legs inside them) to get to a trip to the toilet!” Everyone present bared their heads in silent adoration of the departed Einstein.

“Oh, well, let’s get down to business! Does anyone have any good ideas?”

“What about actually putting a couple of seats in the toilet itself?” a new entrant asked eagerly.

There were tolerant, yet pitying smiles all round. Here was an inexperienced hand, everyone felt, who lacked the finesse to draw the fine line between subtle torture and actual ill-treatment. Someone explained, in patient tones, to the young sprig about the importance of never going so far that the passengers might actually revolt and get bigger seats installed.

The young one was praised for his enthusiasm, and told that he could work on how to get even a loosely-tied seatbelt to actually cut into a passenger’s abdomen, or design stereo earphones that would either slip off the ears every now and then, or break off in a snap of cheap plastic.

Chastened, but still keen to make a contribution, the youngster brightly remarked, “I have just come back from India, where, in the Railways, they actually introduced 3-tier sleepers in the second-class compartments…on the side berths…so that passengers literally inserted themselves into their berths and lay there immobile the whole night, sweating it it out in summer. Say what you will, these ancient cultures can teach us a lot!”

Breaking off from their discussion about neck-rests that did not fit the neck, giving the passengers a painful crick, a few people looked approvingly at the young one. “You have really been doing your homework!” one said encouragingly. “Keep up the good efforts! Soon, you will become an expert AECCD (Aircraft Economy Class Chair Designer)…and who knows, you can even get a chance to write the misleading copy on the company’s website, about how comfortable the seats are!” said an elder designer in hearty tones. “Or even design the plastic trays, the inadequate napkins, and the cups that will upset the coffee all over the passenger’s laptop!”

With everyone smiling happily, the meeting went on….