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Tech Firms Take on Economy-Class Flight Challenge

Tech Firms Take on Economy-Class Flight Challenge
One of air travel's last undisrupted bastions - the economy-class cabin, is being taken on by some start-ups. There's been less attention to innovation at the rear of the plane, while first and business class travelers have long enjoyed comfort upgrades.
"We want to make travel memorable and comfortable for all of us, not just the top 1 percent," Alireza Yaghoubi, founder of Singapore-based AirGo, told a recent start-up conference to pitch his superlight economy-class seat.
Apart from him however, wanting to upgrade the humble food trolley, make it easier to use and charge mobile devices on flights, improve cabin lighting and to make seats more comfortable, are half a dozen firms who are pitching something similar.
Illustrated by this week's $6.4 billion deal for Rockwell Collins to take over B/E Aerospace, an interiors manufacturer, the airline industry is eyeing significant growth on the back of strong jetliner demand and the startups are trying to penetrate this industry.
However, it is a tough ask to persuade the airline industry to upgrade. Anthony Harcup of Acumen, a UK design house that works with planemakers and airlines says that carriers have gone as far as they can with economy-class innovation in a fiercely competitive market and with single-digit margins.
"Right now, we've designed ourselves into a corner with the current economy format. It's about as tight and tiny as you're going to get it. So something has to give, and it's difficult to see what that is," he says.
Only two of its in-cabin concepts lie unused for Acumen. Both involved re-thinking the form and layout of economy-class seats by the company which designed the world's first flat bed for British Airways 20 years ago. But a new generation of outsiders working with new materials and technologies to make economy class, if not luxurious, at least more bearable is not being stopped by that.
AirGo's Yaghoubi noticed the seats hadn't been replaced since the plane was bought 40 years ago while he flew back to his native Iran on its national airline and vowed to do something about airline seats. "Actually, they were quite a lot more comfortable" than today's seats, he said.
By letting the seat slide upwards, like an inverted cinema seat, UK-based Rebel.Aero promises to speed up boarding and integrate a child seat, and this is another example. Passengers can thereafter move in and out and stretch their legs following this innovation. Founder Gareth Burks says he has delivered sample seats to some aircraft manufacturers and he's halfway through getting certification.
Where fibers are braided like hair, creating a hollow structure that halves their weight, AirGo is counting on airlines liking that its seats are made of carbon fiber composites.
Experimentation is being done by others with other materials. The first customer for its titanium seats that would free up the equivalent weight of up to four passengers, would be Air Tahiti, announced France-based Expliseat.
And the food trolley has been made almost a third lighter by UK-based FlightWeight who have redesigned the food trolley with mostly flax seed waste, volcanic rock, sugar and water.

Christopher J. Mitchell

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