Here's Why a Single Airplane Seat Can Cost Airlines $300,000

Illustration for article titled Here's Why a Single Airplane Seat Can Cost Airlines $300,000

Massagers! Sliding doors! Airbags! THE AMENITIES ALONE! The space race between airlines to design fancier first class and business class seats is well-known. But all that luxury comes at a price to the airlines—a price that is, oh, more than the average cost of a home in the United States.

Image: Google.

A recent report from Bloomberg describes how a shortage of business-class seats for Boeing’s Dreamliner is mucking up the company’s production schedule. As a result, Boeing is parking two of its brand-new planes at an airfield in the Mojave Desert—yes, the airfield famous for housing the decaying remains of commercial and military planes.


So, what seems to be the holdup? The seat-maker in question is a company called Zodiac Aerospace, which specializes in developing the products and interiors that are installed inside commercial aircraft bodies. Demand for “lie-flat” seats is skyrocketing right now—in part because many airlines are realizing that charging a premium based on seat design and other cabin perks is an extraordinarily lucrative alternative to trying to boost the seat count in coach.

Illustration for article titled Here's Why a Single Airplane Seat Can Cost Airlines $300,000

Emirates Boeing 777-200LR First Class Suite by Altair78

The trend of ever-fancier seating is even catching on with US carriers, as The New York Times explained in 2013:

Few of these innovations have occurred on American carriers, which have been locked in a scramble for survival over the last decade. Their business model has amounted to jamming as many people as possible on planes with little money to spare on new designs. But that is starting to change.


It makes sense: There’s only so much an airline can charge extra for. They can’t change the amount of space in the plane. They can’t change the speed. They can change the one thing the passenger really cares about: the seat.

As a result, the airline industry has been pushing out new “premium” seat designs with amazing speed—and these designs are so complicated and elaborate, they “typically cost $150,000 to $300,000,” as one consultant told Bloomberg, which explains that these seats “can require extensive rewiring, ductwork changes and reinforced cabin floors.”

Illustration for article titled Here's Why a Single Airplane Seat Can Cost Airlines $300,000

First class on Etihad.

There are now entire design studios that focus on seats—including one we’ve written about before—which specialize in details that seem absurd to most of us economy chattel. For example:

  • Air France calls its suede and leather-clad seats “suites,” and they fold flat (of course) into a particularly wide bed—at 30 inches, that’s almost a twin mattress.
  • Jet Blue’s new “Mint” class comes with actual closing doors for your suite, which is a first. Also, bonkers toiletries.
  • Singapore’s entertainment system alone includes “a 24-inch LCD screen with 1080p full HD resolution, the award-winning Bose QuietComfort 15 noise-cancellation headphones.”
  • It’s not a seat, but first class on Emirates has a “shower spa” designed “in beautiful walnut and marble” and Bvlgari toiletries.

And that doesn’t count all of the material science and engineering that go into building these seats light and durable enough to not suck up too much fuel or time when they need repairing. In light of all that, it’s hardly surprising that one of these suckers can set an airline back $300 grand.

For a glimpse of what it’s like to fly in what is arguable the most expensive seat in the world, check out this amazing account of a flight on Singapore Airlines’ “suite class” by Derek Low.


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You can thank the people flying in these suites for keeping air travel affordable for the rest of us.