On Business and Design Considerations of 1st Class Airplane Seating

David Owen, writing in The New Yorker, in a cleverly titled article “Game of Thrones,” describes the business and design considerations of seats in modern-day airplanes. While the economy seating is fairly routine (cramped), there is a lot of creativity involved in how 1st class and business seating is designed and built:

Airplane interiors are even more tightly regulated. Nearly every element undergoes a safety-enhancing process called “delethalization”: seats have to withstand an impact equal to sixteen times the force of gravity, and to remain in place when they do, so that they don’t block exit routes or crush anyone, and they can’t burst into flames or release toxic gases when they get hot. Doing something as simple as slightly increasing the thickness of the padding in a seat cushion can necessitate a new round of testing and certification, because a more resilient seat could make a passenger bounce farther after an impact, increasing the risk of injury caused by turbulence or a hard landing. Delethalizing some premium-class seats—in which a passenger’s head and torso have a lot of room to accelerate before being stopped by something solid—requires the addition of a feature that many passengers don’t even realize is there: an air bag concealed in the seat belt.

This bit about how expensive video-back video screens is fascinating:

In economy, the tight spacing of the seats makes air bags mostly unnecessary. But seat-back video screens and the hard frames that surround them pose a safety challenge, partly because of the potential for injuries caused by head strikes, and partly because the computers and the electrical systems that serve them have to be both fireproof and fully isolated from the plane’s—so that crossed wires in somebody’s seat don’t allow a ten-year-old playing a video game to suddenly take control of the cockpit. Largely as a result, in-flight entertainment systems are almost unbelievably expensive. The rule of thumb, I was told, is “a thousand dollars an inch”—meaning that the small screen in the back of each economy seat can cost an airline ten thousand dollars, plus a few thousand for its handheld controller.


The article mentions but doesn’t link to the TheDesignAir’s Top 10 International Business Classes of 2014 (it’s well worth a look).

Why Must Fliers Turn Off Electronic Devices on Flights?

Nick Bilton has a post in today’s New York Times rationalizing how airline rules that are decades old persist on flights without evidence that they should be enforced. In particular: why must you be required to turn off your iPhone or Kindle during take-off and landing?

According to the F.A.A., 712 million passengers flew within theUnited States in 2010. Let’s assume that just 1 percent of those passengers — about two people perBoeing 737, a conservative number — left a cellphone, e-reader or laptop turned on during takeoff or landing. That would mean seven million people on 11 million flights endangered the lives of their fellow passengers.

Yet, in 2010, no crashes were attributed to people using technology on a plane. None were in 2009. Or 2008, 2007 and so on. You get the point.

Surely if electronic gadgets could bring down an airplane, you can be sure that the Department of Homeland Securityand the Transportation Security Administration, which has a consuming fear of 3.5 ounces of hand lotion and gel shoe inserts, wouldn’t allow passengers to board a plane with aniPad or Kindle, for fear that they would be used by terrorists.


Les Dorr, a spokesman for the F.A.A., said the agency would rather err on the side of caution when it comes to digital devices on planes.

He cited a 2006 study by the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics, a nonprofit group that tests and reports on technical travel and communications issues. The group was asked by the F.A.A. to test the effects of cellphones, Wi-Fi and portable electronic devices on planes.

Its finding? “Insufficient information to support changing the policies,” Mr. Dorr said. “There was no evidence saying these devices can’t interfere with a plane, and there was no evidence saying that they can.”

Despite the evidence, this practice of turning off electronics continues. The reasoning is unclear. But this smart comment in the post makes sense:

From what I understand, a big reason that people are still asked to turn off devices is because the biggest change of an emergency situation is during take-off and landing. Forcing people turn off their devices during this time is supposed to keep everyone more alert and paying better attention if something were to happen.

And another comment provides food for thought:

I don’t want to be on the one flight that proves they do interfere when it crashes. 

For now, I am happy to oblige in turning off my electronics during take-off and landing, even if my neighbor doesn’t.

What do you think? Is the precaution to turn off electronic devices unnecessary?

When Instinct Fails

We often laud our ability to go with the gut, to rely on instinct in dire circumstances. But in at least one prominent instance–that in the airline industry–instinct can kill. From this fascinating New York Times piece, we learn about aerodynamic stalls, and how the instinctual desire to lift the airplane’s nose up will exacerbate the stall and possibly lead to a crash:

For the hundreds of pilots he has trained to recognize and recover from an aerodynamic stall, Mr. Otelli said, “the first reaction of all of them is to pull back on the control stick” and drive the plane’s nose higher — a move that only exacerbates the problem. “It’s a reflex that’s almost uncontrollable,” he said.

Learning to overcome that impulse, and instead to maneuver the nose toward the ground to regain speed, takes repeated practice and forms part of the initial training of every licensed pilot. Still, “this is not something everyone is able to do after the second, third or maybe even the fourth try,” he said. “If a pilot has only experienced a stall once or twice — and perhaps only in a flight simulator — chances are higher that instinct takes over in a live situation.”

The good news is that loss of the plane’s control is rare:

It accounted for only about 5 percent of all aircraft accidents and incidents in the past 10 years globally, according to statistics compiled by the European Aviation Safety Agency, and nearly one-third of those incidents involved an aerodynamic stall. But when it does occur, it is almost always catastrophic: Of the 101 accidents attributed to loss of control from 2001 to 2010, 80 percent were fatal. Of all air passenger deaths over the past decade, 25 percent were the result of a loss of control.

It seems like pilot training on the simulators is either 1) inadequate or 2) not rigorous enough:

“When a simulator stalls, it feels like nothing. It is very benign, whereas in the aircraft it can be a dramatic experience” Mr. Advani said. “We must create an environment where the pilot is challenged in a realistic way — to even make it difficult to apply the correct control inputs,” he said. “Ultimately, proper techniques for both prevention and recovery should become thoroughly trained responses. ”

So next time someone says: “Go with your instinct,” you can use this counter-example and explain how that can backfire…

Optimal Way for Airplane Boarding

A few years ago, Fermilab astrophysicist Jason Steffen observed while flying to a conference and got to thinking: is there a more efficient way for passengers to board an airplane?

Turns out, the answer is yes. If you’ve ever boarded an airplane where the people were asked to board by “zones” or by row numbers, you know how much of a logjam that ensues. It turns out that random boarding is better (faster) than zone boarding. But is there an even better way?

Jason Steffen with the answer. He set up a model using an algorithm based on the Monte Carlo optimization method used in statistics and mathematics. Turns out, the most efficient boarding method is to board alternate rows at a time, beginning with the window seats on one side, then the other, minimizing aisle interference.

You can see a video of this boarding process below:


Now, all you have to do is petition your friendly airline to implement this method for boarding.


(via CNET)