Seats that cross boundaries: personal and international.

If you had to choose between designing the engine or the seat of an airplane, which would you choose? Before you answer, consider that progress in engine design is measured in speed, safety and fuel efficiency. Progress in seat design is measured by a much more demanding standard: the passengers.

A lot has changed in the 50 years since the first commercial jet airliners appeared. First of all, we no longer turn planes into pop stars (Peter, Paul and Mary, the Steve Miller Band and Gordon Lightfoot all performed songs that mentioned the Boeing 707) and we’ve grounded in-flight smoking. In the 1950s, the British de Havilland Comet had separate washrooms for men and women. In 2007, we sleep next to strangers as we cross time zones.

While lie-flat seating is being hailed as the must-have feature for those who fly, it’s worth noting that this idea isn’t new. Sleeping berths were standard equipment in some commercial propeller plane interiors. Later, when the launch of the jet airliner significantly shortened flights, there was no longer a need (or so they thought) for customers to take transcontinental naps.

In addition to lie-flat seats, today’s planes are tricked out with all sorts of in-flight gizmos, including WiFi access, USB ports and touch-sensitive display screens at every seat. On Virgin, talking to the person next to you has been replaced with in-flight, seat-to-seat text-chat. Looking for more information about these trends, we asked an industry insider about the work that goes into designing airline interiors. Jeffrey Bernett, who is a familiar face at DWR for his work on the Flight Recliner, Liege Desk and Reid Sofa, worked as a design consultant for Northwest Airlines (NWA). Challenged with the task of designing new business class in-flight seating for NWA, Bernett partnered with Jeffrey Osborne, a design and marketing consultant who once worked for Knoll.

Q&A with Jeffrey BernettJeffrey Bernett
Q: What were your responsibilities at NWA?

To take the next generation of lie-flat business class seats and improve their comfort and functionality, while also integrating an entertainment system into the design. The goal was to create a seating solution that was consistent with NWA brand values and looked like it should sit inside an NWA aircraft.

Q: Did the project begin with a problem that needed to be solved?

NWA’s most profitable routes are to Asia. There is an 11″ height difference between 95% of the U.S. population and that of Japan, so we had to accommodate those different body types, shapes and heights. The solution had to have all of the ergonomic features necessary for long-distance travel, delivered in a package that supported this target audience. Finally, the notion that people are sleeping next to people they don’t know meant that part of the task was to develop features that created privacy.

Q: What were some of the challenges you encountered?

There were a couple of key factors. A heavy seat requires more fuel to get it from point A to point B. That costs the airline money, so we had to keep weight in mind. We also had to stay within budget for the overall cost of development, as well as the price per unit. At the same time, the seat had to be comfortable, particularly for long flights, and durability was another key priority. The seat had to stand up to the abuse loads seen in the airline business.

Q: Can you give me an example of a breakthrough or “aha!” moment?

The canopy. Privacy was something we thought was important from the start, particularly in lie-flat mode, when your head is just above another person’s feet and knees.

Q: Are the seats you worked on still found on today’s planes?

I believe they’ve been installed on all the new long-haul aircraft NWA has purchased since 2001, as well as in some of their older, refurbished aircraft.

Q: How has your work at Northwest influenced your work since?

It was a great project, and you can look at the Flight Recliner we did for DWR and see a bit of inspiration from NWA.

Q: Finally, what’s your opinion of the Dreamliner by Boeing?

The Dreamliner is a revolutionary approach to use of materials in the manufacture of an airplane, improving a number of aspects related to the aircraft, window size and cabin headroom.