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There may be “Pure Skies” seating, which includes upholstery that changes colour (Image for illustrative purposes) Image Credit: Gulf News archives

As coronavirus cases continue to rise, it’s clear that the standard plane cabin layouts we’re used to aren’t working in a pandemic.

A face mask is less reassuring when you’re sitting elbow-to-elbow with a stranger for an extended period of time, with many airlines no longer distancing passengers as the pandemic threatens their business model.

While some airlines continue the responsible-yet-costly move of blocking off middle seats for travellers’ safety, a redesigned cabin layout could mean they wouldn’t have to.

There has been an outpouring of design ideas since the pandemic began, from flipped middle seats and double-decker rows, to seat upholstery that changes colour when sanitised.

Seat fabrics include photochromic and thermochromic inks that react to new cleaning methods like UVC and heat cleaning. The new technology is proposed only for business-class cabins, so it will come at a premium

- Shannon McMahon

Design firms proposing changes to the average plane cabin are tackling different aspects of the in-flight experience, with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for social distancing and increased cleanings in mind.

“It’s important to innovate while being mindful of the realities of the world we live in. We know, for instance, that keeping the middle seat free is not a viable economic model for airlines,” says Anna Meyer, a spokesperson for London-based design firm PriestmanGoode.

More on the issue

“Equally, we know that screens between every seat does not present the best investment at this time. Nor will it suit all passengers, especially families or couples travelling together.”

Some new seat designs are squarely focused on physically separating passengers, while others aim to implement new technologies that will make it easier to sanitise plane cabins and give passengers peace of mind.

— Color-changing seats for business class

The most recent technology to make waves is the proposal for “Pure Skies” seating, which includes upholstery that changes colour when sanitised with UV light, so that passengers know their seat is clean upon arrival. Once the seat is used again, it returns to its original colour.

Seat fabrics include photochromic and thermochromic inks that react to new cleaning methods like UVC and heat cleaning. The new technology is proposed only for business-class cabins, so it will come at a premium and will take at least three years to develop and certify.

When could the design take shape in actual planes? “While we can’t comment on specifics, we’ve had interest from airlines, suppliers and seat vendors,” PriestmanGoode’s Meyer said.

There is a clear consensus in the industry that change needs to happen, that the aviation industry is in a state of flux and that for the long-term health of the aviation business, we need to start developing new ideas.

— Redesigned economy configurations

PriestmanGoode’s vision for economy cabins includes some lower-tech solutions. To reduce the risks posed by high-touch surfaces, renderings propose removing touchscreen televisions in favour of mounts for passengers’ own phones or tablets.

They also propose removing seat-back pockets, along with redesigned seat shells without cushion seams in an effort to “eliminate dirt traps.”

Seats are also staggered to separate single passengers from couples, and dividers are installed between every other row. Tray tables are removable and taken away when meals are cleared to avoid being used without cleaning. The seat-recline button is also contained within seat covering to avoid hard-to-clean gaps.

— Double-decker cabins

Hoping for something a little more socially distant than the standard three-deep rows? A proposed design from US start-up Zephyr Aerospace aims to completely overhaul plane cabins into stacked lie-flat pods.

Echoing a double-decker bus, the layout is designed for premium-economy class and would prioritise both social distancing and comfort.

While lie-flat cabins might seem like a pipe dream for economy cabins, the start-up quickly surpassed its investment goals for production and notes on its website that Air New Zealand already employs lie-flat sleep pods in economy for long-haul flights.

— Reversed middle seats and seat dividers

Somewhere between the streamlined-cabin concept and the double-decker revamp is Italy-based Aviointeriors’ Janus Seat configuration, which reverses every middle seat and implements plastic dividers that snake from window to aisle and separate each passenger.

While it largely solves the problem of getting stuck with a middle seat by equalising all three spots in the row, this layout isn’t exactly ideal for families with small kids who can’t sit alone. The design also raises the question of whether the seats would be able to recline.

Shannon McMahon is a columnist who specialises in travel

Washington Post