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Insight 02: The Science of Comfort

We recently announced the launch of the LR variant of the Hawk platform. Part of our developmental journey for this product involved optimising comfort for flights of over 4 hours. This insight explores the science of seat comfort and how we have applied this expertise to our Hawk platform.

Slimline Seats – Dispelling The Myth Of Discomfort

As a company that specialises in lightweight, slimline seats, we are well aware that they are often perceived as being uncomfortable by passengers and have attracted some negative press in recent years. For airlines, they are a great way to increase capacity and ultimately bottom line figures, however, for passengers the visual effect of a slimline seat is that comfort is being compromised in favour of profit. Our challenge is to create seats that enhance experience and dispel the myth that slimline = uncomfortable.

This insight focuses around comfort: how do we define it and how do we achieve it? Key elements of this study include:

  • Defining comfort
  • Understanding ergonomics
  • Understanding passenger behaviour
  • Automotive vs aerospace comfort
  • Pressure mapping
  • Maximising living space
  • Conclusion – Hawk LR and beyond

Defining Comfort

The Oxford English Dictionary defines comfort as ‘a state of physical ease and freedom from pain or constraint’.  However, comfort is a highly subjective topic. We are all shaped differently and have our own opinions as to what makes a comfortable seat which often comes down to hard vs soft.

More often than not, people will associate hard with uncomfortable and soft with comfortable, however the reality lies somewhere in the middle. In relation to aircraft seating, providing a seat which is too soft would eliminate the possibility of providing long term support and providing a hard seat makes the seat uncomfortable and fails to distribute pressure evenly. Incorporating ergonomics into the design of a seat however, allows for the middle ground to be met by introducing support in the correct places whilst also maintaining comfort.

Defining Ergonomics

Ergonomics is the process of designing or arranging workplaces, products and systems so that they fit the people who use them. It is a branch of science that aims to learn about human abilities and limitations, and then apply this learning to improve people’s interaction with products, systems and environments. When applying the principles of ergonomics to the design of an aircraft seat, the ideal outcome would be to produce seats which are fully customisable to every individual’s needs. This may be achievable in business and first class, however is a lot more challenging when designing economy seats which come in a ‘one size fits all’ format and must meet the following needs;

  • Comfortable size and support for a wide range of passengers
  • Allows safe ingress and egress
  • Provides support during a wide range of activities e.g. sitting, reading, sleeping, watching IFE
  • Conforms to safety requirements

Scientific opinion is that it is more important that passengers are able to adjust and vary their seating posture (dynamic sitting) rather than designing a seat around the ideal static posture. Being seated in a forced posture for long periods of time can be harmful to the back so having the ability to make adjustments to the seated position can vastly improve comfort. In a recent study conducted by Dr Vink of TU Delft, it was found that a dynamic configuration is favourable, with occupants feeling more active, comfortable, accepting and calm when in a more dynamic position.

Automotive Comfort

The study of seat comfort in the automotive world is widely documented to be a function of the following;

  • Good static and dynamic seat characteristics
  • Deep-down firmness and a surface softness contribute to achieving a good static show-room feeling
  • Compromised foam composition with stiffness and soft cushion top
  • Comfortable position of vehicle cabin e.g. pedals, steering wheel
  • Seat that provides opportunity for adjusting postures

Economy Aircraft Seating Comfort

Within aircraft seating, the goals differ to automotive. Research tells us that key factors in aircraft seating comfort include:

  • Good dynamic seat characteristics
  • Long term comfort  – support is critical to achieving this
  • Maximised living space
  • Comfortable position of amenities – traytable / IFE
  • Ergonomically neutral (needs to appeal to a wider range of visitors)
  • Articulation, movement and customisation all aid comfort, however the challenge behind designing an effective economy seat is creating something that balances comfort with simplicity, light weight and minimal moving parts for durability. The key is to develop something that offers support yet enables movement.

Pressure Mapping

Whilst the above elements were all taken into account during the development of the Hawk platform, we took things a step further during the development of the LR variant and introduced pressure mapping into our design process. With this, we have not only been able to produce a seat which is ergonomically designed but also provides long-term comfort.

Pressure mapping is currently used in the automotive and medical industries to ensure long-term comfort.  In terms of average pressure distribution targets, an automotive seat is typically designed to give 0.7PSI average pressure, whilst the medical industry standard is lower at 0.5PSI. A lower number indicates a more effective distribution of pressure. The challenge is to maximise contact area and maximise distribution of pressure. The medical industry leads the way in this area in terms of research as it is critical to ensure effective distribution of pressure to reduce the risk of pressure sores.

In the automotive world, the critical balance is between ensuring showroom comfort, long term support and seat durability. Our automotive background has enabled us to identify this method and apply it to our seats to ensure maximum comfort and distribution of pressure. Fundamentally, this relieves compression on blood vessels, particularly in the back and legs to reduce discomfort and numbness and this is particularly critical for long haul flights. Upon performing tests our seats were proven to:

  • Offer good sized contact area and pressure distribution
  • Have a firm but supportive feel
  • Offer good back support
  • Offer a good level of comfort for the majority

The tests we conducted were used to enhance contouring, foam thickness and foam type to ensure that the seat is optimised for long haul applications. The selected foam configuration achieved a low average pressure distribution – 0.25PSI, a number that exceeds medical standards. This low figure is testament to the Hawk’s ergonomic design and ability to effectively spread load over a large contact area.

Maximised Living Space

Another critical component of passenger comfort is living space. As explored in our previous insight, our background in composite materials enables to optimise parts and structures, delivering high strength components that can be shaped to maximise living space. For example, the Hawk features our unique carbon fibre ‘S-Frame’. This heavily contoured structure is lightweight and extremely slim, yet durable. This frame is ergonomically shaped to enable the seat to have optimal lumbar and spine support on the seating surface whilst offering enhanced knee clearance on the seatback. This scallop feature runs across the entire seatback and creates additional knee room for the passenger.

We have also worked hard to increase perceived space through design, our seats feature reduced visual bulk at the top of the seat to give a greater sense of space. Intelligent integration and placement of peripheral components and options to minimise encroachment on living space – such as our integrated USB charging system. We have taken inspiration from automotive interiors, whereby everything has its place and features are seamlessly styled and integrated into the cabin.

In It For The Long Haul – Going Even Further

In conclusion, the Hawk is designed for comfort and our work with industry experts has been to ensure an enhanced experience for passengers. Each element of the seat has been researched, developed and optimised for purpose to ensure comfort and support and includes:

  • Neutral yet ergonomic design
  • Seat pan angle
  • Angle of ‘pre-recline’ – this has been further enhanced in the Hawk LR
  • Structural foam shape
  • Soft foam top
  • Support
  • Slimline profile resulting in increased living space

The Hawk LR incorporates lessons learned from these comfort studies. Utilising our modular Hawk platform, we have added a number of features to enhance passenger experience – additional pressure mapped comfort foam, extended seat base cushion, and 4-way adjustable headrest. The result of this is a seat that offers an enhanced experience for passengers. By modifying foam density and contouring we were able to significantly improve the seated pressure distribution. Upon launch at AIX Hamburg 2017, feedback of the Hawk LR’s seat comfort was extremely positive with 100% of the 300 of the attendees asked finding the seat ‘comfortable ’.

Always moving forward and going further, we have further enhancements in the pipeline to optimise passenger experience. Watch this space!


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