Printed headline: Seating Satisfaction
I presented my boarding pass and the gate agent almost immediately said, “Oh, seat 12G, so I have a piece of information for you. Sir—the foot rest of your seat is out of order.” My first thought was positive: “This is nice; at least they are telling me in advance.”
But upon sitting down, I saw that the leg rest was not working, either. And my neighbor could not recline normally. None of us could expect to spend a good night on the transatlantic flight to Paris. We came away with a poor passenger experience.
The situation is just an example of how a seat-maintenance issue—an activity that may not appear as flight- critical as repairing high-pressure turbine blades—can either be properly managed or negatively affect a carrier’s reputation. Seats account for most of the maintenance activity in the cabin, as they are in constant contact with the passenger.
Usually, seat maintenance is done at scheduled calendar intervals such as every two years, says Rodrigo Catarino, an aircraft maintenance engineer with TAP Portugal. In addition, seats have to be inspected during A checks, which depend on flight hours or cycles. “On top of that, we have a specific program,” Vera Martinho, TAP Portugal cabin interior engineer, adds. The operator can introduce tasks, taking into account the seat manufacturer’s recommendations and its own experience.
“We give recommendations, we do not set intervals; however, if the seat includes an electric component, we suggest a time between inspections,” says Oliver Carmincke, vice president for customer service at Recaro Aircraft Seating.
On a widebody, at every turnaround, TAP technicians perform functionality testing of every seat. “If the crew reports damage, technicians have to solve the problem,” Martinho says. It is mandatory to check the attachments, the structure and the seat belt. “We go further for customer functionality, looking at the condition of plastic covers, cushion, leg rest and back rest.” Recaro receives feedback from airlines, where it appears measuring customer satisfaction reflects well-functioning seats.
“Electronic seats often have diagnosis programs and send fault messages to the aircraft or airline server,” says Chris Gruener, head of technical at BOC Aviation, a lessor based in Singapore.
Maintenance of the cabin interior is key for leasing companies. “Seats are expected to be in a ‘good condition’ at lease return, with all defects repaired and clean, obviously with reasonable wear accepted; as this is subject to interpretation, and typically the new operator is expecting an ‘almost new’ condition, this often leads to conflicts between the returning and the new lessee,” says Gruener.
A variety of weak points can be identified. TAP Portugal’s engineers say the shortest lives can be found on seat cushion foam and plastic covers. If the seat has actuators, wear should be monitored. Business-class seats are much more complex and thus more maintenance-intensive, says Martinho.
Because of contact with carts, more wear and tear can be found on aisle seats than on the window side. The back of the seat, and especially the magazine holder, also have large exposure to passenger actions.
The more straightforward the design, the less likely the problems. “Nothing breaks on an SL3510,” says Carmincke, referring to one of the lightest (and therefore bare-bones) seats on the market. When designing a business-class seat, a balance has to be struck with robustness, he adds. In-service issues are transferred to the design team. “We never make the same mistake twice,” he says.
How has seat reliability evolved over the last five years? “It is hard to measure, as it depends on how a customer uses the product,” Carmincke answers. Overall, Recaro says it has seen fewer complaints, relative to the number of seats produced. Gruener concurs: “Because of the enhanced diagnosis function, I would say reliability has been going up.”
Troubleshooting tools are improving, too. Recent business-class seats “have a control unit with a display informing about seat problems, including the root cause,” Martinho says, noting the control unit is “very reliable.”
As for the pricing scheme, a variety of options are available. Recaro has a full-service package, or the customer can choose a guarantee for a certain level of material expenses, Carmincke elaborates. The seat manufacturer can also guarantee part durability. It recommends a list of spare parts and quantities, Martinho adds.
Reliability can be expected to improve with new seat designs. “It is a strong factor at the moment, because so much cost is involved if you solve problems afterward,” Carmincke explains. The new materials used in seat structures are more reliable, but there is still room for improvement, TAP’s MRO engineers admit.
Martinho also expects progress to be made in the time needed to replace seat parts. “Every part should be replaceable in under 15 min. Currently, on a business-class seat, a simple cover can take 2.5 hr. to remove, and an actuator 1.5 hr.,” she says. The monitoring and diagnosis functions will improve, too, Gruener notes.