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Introducing the Airplane Seats of the Future

A century ago, airline seating consisted of wicker chairs nailed to the cabin floor. Ever since, the industry has been struggling with the often conflicting goals of making customers comfortable and making a profit. Lately, the latter objective seems to be winning out, as new “slimline” seats, using lightweight materials to replace bulky frames, give airlines carte blanche to cram more coach flyers into the same space. And the gap between the haves and have-nots is widening as lines such as Emirates and Etihad add luxurious suites for those in the pointy end of the plane. (Asiana’s first-class Oz suites, pictured, boast beds that are seven-feet long.)

So how will this paradox play out in air travel’s next century? Since every bit of extra weight in the cabin adds many zeros to the airlines’ fuel tab, aircraft interiors will have to make clever use of scarce real estate. Several leading designers have come out with cutting-edge prototypes that eke out some precious space, or at least the illusion of it:

Skycouches or convertible seats/beds: Air New Zealand pioneered this innovative design that converts a row of three coach seats into a futon-like bed fit for one person, or two who know each other really well (hence the nickname “cuddle class”).

Caterpillar convertible: These banks of seats, from Hong Kong-based Paperclip Design, can be configured in an economy layout and quickly reshaped into a business class layout with full beds and a table separating seats (which, in economy configuration, is pulled up to make a third middle seat).

Reverse Herringbone design: This is mainly for business class, where flat beds are now de rigueur. By arranging the seats in a reverse layout, alternating head and toe, there’s more room for all, in a clever design from French firm Zodiac Aerospace and JPA Design.

Two-tiered armrest: Also from Paperclip, this adjustable armrest allows seatmates to coexist without knocking elbows by setting the armrest at slightly different heights.

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