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Squashing Knees and Rubbing Shoulders: No Lasting Change for Long-haul Economy Class Seating

26/02/2014 10:39 GMT | Updated 27/04/2014 10:59 BST

Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific was the first international airline to launch a hard shell Economy seat for its long-haul fleet of aircraft in 2007. The fixed shell seating was designed to prevent passengers from disturbing the person behind them when reclining. However, the seats are on their way out and are being replaced with traditional reclining seats.

The carrier's design team had been creating industry-leading cabin innovations for decades so the persistent customer complaints following the launch became a major disappointment. By keeping the seatback in a fixed position and allowing passengers to move the seat cushion forward, the fixed-shell seat was designed to simulate a recline, but many customers were demanding a return to an actual reclining seatback.

With an essentially traditional seat design back in the plane, the Economy traveller will once again be squashed by the seatback, built-in TV and table, the moment the seat in front is reclined. I am still disappointed that the fixed-shell seat never achieved the necessary popularity to remain a permanent feature. The airline had launched a unique product that created a loyal following with customers who really valued not having their limited space infringed by a reclining seatback.

Similar to Cathay's high-profile Economy seat launch in 2007, Air New Zealand's Spaceseat for Premium Economy was launched with a huge media campaign in 2010 highlighting the uniqueness of the new design which included couple-friendly features such as a shared dining table between each of the two centre seats. However, the seat configuration in its brand new B777-300 aircraft survived in its original form only for a few months before all aircraft were remodelled again at significant cost and permanent revenue loss. A whole row of Premium Economy seats had to be removed from each aircraft to address customer complaints about inadequate leg room.

When a cabin refurbishment programme for the older Air New Zealand long-haul fleet of B777-200 aircraft was announced, the high-profile Spaceseat was no longer part of the upgrade plans. All B777-200 aircraft will get a much more traditional seat installed in the Premium Economy cabin. The airline did not elaborate on its decision to kill this revolutionary product.

Introducing disruptive innovation to seating in long-haul Economy or even Premium Economy remains flawed with many obstacles. The enormous price sensitivity of the product means as many seats as possible need to fit into the cabin. There is naturally little physical space to work with and as such, any meaningful attempt to dramatically improve the current customer experience is heavily constrained.

Airbus recently ran an advertising campaign promoting the advantages of 18 inch minimum seat width in Economy. However, the realities in the market are rather different. While Boeing originally proposed a 3-3-3 seating layout for its best-selling Triple Seven aircraft in Economy, one of the world's largest carriers, Emirates, pushed aside the manufacturer's idea about nine-abreast seating and equipped its B777 fleet with 10-abreast seating in Economy. Following this, many other international carriers have followed Emirates' decision and also equipped their 777 fleets with 10 seats across. This clearly impacts comfort levels in the cabin: much smaller aisle space means passengers and crew frequently bump into seats, and the seats are slimmer with less width.

While inflight entertainment continues to become more widespread, reliable and increasingly enhanced by inflight Wi-Fi, and while significant engine noise reduction in the A380 double decker cabin and a revolutionary cabin air system on the Boeing Dreamliner make Economy travel more pleasant, the core element of long-haul Economy, the seat, remains stubbornly stuck in the past. It is everything around the seat that is changing but aside from incremental improvements to the actual seat design, there is little evidence for successful innovation on the actual seating.

In contrast, in First and Business Class seats turn into full beds, sometimes wide enough to accommodate almost two people, and occasionally fitted in private suites. It is not unusual for First or Business Class products to be revamped or replaced every three to four years on some of world's most leading airlines. But obviously the economics are slightly different: ticket revenues between £5,000 to £10,000 for a long-haul return trip in First and Business versus £500 in Economy allow continuous investment into the product.

If First or Business Class travel is not an option, here are a couple of suggestions for unusually comfortable seats in Economy.

Thai Airways from Scandinavia to Bangkok where Premium Economy travellers sleep in brand new luxury beds. How does it work? On Scandinavian routes only, Thai offers a Premium Economy cabin; a cabin that does not physically exist on any Thai aircraft. Thai sells some of the Business seats as Premium Economy.

Air New Zealand beds for two in Economy. How does it work? Two travellers buy a third seat in a specially configured Economy row of three seats on the B777-300 aircraft that can be converted into a cosy but slightly narrow couch.

If you want to experience them before they disappear - hurry!