Airplane seat maker gives middle passenger more elbow room

For God’s sake! Enough! She has been trying to ignore it,
but if this idiot beside her doesn’t cede a corner of the armrest, she’ll
suffocate him with the vomit bag. She makes her elbow as pointy as possible
and, very gradually, digs it into his forearm. How long before he gives in? — Tom Rachman, “The Imperfectionists” 

LAS VEGAS — Battles over armrest space are the bane of
virtually anyone who has ever flown coach on a full flight. But a seat
manufacturer that just locked down its first sale aims to alleviate this
perpetual source of in-flight aggravation and tension while improving the
overall experience of flying in the dreaded middle seat. 

Hank Scott, CEO and founder of Molon Labe Seating of
Lakewood, Colo., said the company took an order a month ago to furnish seats on
20 Airbus A320s for a Chinese carrier. (Scott didn’t identify the airline
because it has not given him permission to do so.)

Molon Labe seats are unique in the industry because of their
staggered design. For a row of three-across seats, the middle seat is set in a
fixed position slightly behind and lower than aisle and window seats.

Offsetting the seats offers two advantages that Scott
emphasizes during sales pitches. The first has to do with the armrest. Because
the middle seat passenger is slightly behind and lower than the passengers to the right and left, their natural
position to rest arms is different.

Molon Labe’s seats take advantage of this offsetting in the
design of their armrests, which have an elevated front half and a lower back
half — in essence creating separate spaces for each passenger to rest his or
her arms.  

I tried out the bifurcated armrest at the Future Travel
Experience Global conference in Las Vegas earlier this month, sitting
next to fellow aviation reporter Seth Miller of PaxEx.Aero. It wasn’t what I
would call spacious. Our arms still grazed slightly. 

But since we each had a clearly delineated section of the
armrest, there could be no strategizing about staking out space as soon as my
neighbor dropped his guard. And there was no (as Rachman describes in his
novel) making my elbow “as pointy as possible.” 

Without a doubt, in other words, the seat offered an
improvement over the slim armrests that have become the norm in economy cabins
in recent years. 

The second advantage that Scott emphasizes about Molon Labe’s
staggered design has to do with spreaders, a component, typically made of
aluminum, that connects the seat back to the seat itself. Most aircraft seats
have spreaders that are positioned one next to the other, but the Molon Labe
seats save space by having vertically stacked spreaders. The result is extra
space in the seats themselves.

Standard Molon Labe seats in a typical six-abreast formation
for a Boeing 737 are 18.4 inches, or approximately an inch wider than the
industry standard. Widths can also be adjusted so that the middle seat is as
wide as 19 inches while aisle and window seats have 18 inches of width. 

For the seat back, the offset design enables the company to
add even more space in the center seat, where its width is 21.7 inches,
downright spacious by industry standards. Scott said middle seat passengers
effectively get a couple more inches of seatback space than that because their
shoulders are behind the passengers on the window and aisle seats.

“What I’m waiting to see,” he said, “is for
someone on a plane to ask, ‘Would you like to go to the aisle so I can take the
middle seat?'” 

Indeed, that would be an impressive feat. 

One downside to the staggered design concept is that the
seat backs are fixed, meaning passengers can’t recline. 

For Molon Labe, the first confirmed sale comes after an
arduous 10 years of effort in development and marketing. The company first
attempted to enter the market with its slide-slip seat, in which the aisle seat
could be slid inward during boarding and exit to create more aisle space. 

Speaking on a panel at the Future Travel Experience conference, Scott said he
eventually realized that airlines weren’t interested in a product that confuses
passengers.

“You have to design for the lowest common denominator,”
he said. 

The company also faced hurdles breaking into an industry
that is resistant to change. 

Sitting on the same panel as Scott, American Airlines
director of aircraft interiors Brian Richardson explained the dilemma a carrier
the size of American faces. It’s difficult, Richardson said, to support
innovation while retrofitting hundreds of aircraft, in part because they can’t
know if a small supplier can stand behind the order. 

“In that type of situation, we don’t want to put in a
brand-new seat that people haven’t used before,” Richardson said.

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