British Airways and Airbus bring wings to JPA Design and Williams Advanced Engineering project to develop new lightweight premium aircraft seat

2 October, 2019

When it comes to understanding aerodynamics then the aviation and Formula 1 industries have a lot in common. Whether it is speed or efficiency, or a balance between the two, the fundamentals of design are key to success across both forms of transport.

It was no surprise to learn earlier this year that luxury design company JPA Design and Williams Advanced Engineering had announced a partnership to develop new aircraft seating inspired by Williams’ experience in Formula 1 racing. That has now taken a significant further step with British Airways and safety experts SWS Certification taking their place alongside them in a new consortium that is further supported by Airbus and with funding from the Aerospace Technology Institute (ATI).

The goal of this 18-month project, costing GBP1.4 million, is to develop a future lightweight aircraft seat for business class and premium economy cabins and the environmental benefits could be significant. ATI’s design approach for new seat structures is to develop a product which can fit across multiple platforms. The estimates are that replacing all business class seats with this lighter product on just 12 long-haul planes could translate to annual savings of 942,000kg CO2 and around USD195,600 in fuel, based on just a 4kg per seat, with opportunity for further savings through product development.

A seat that both enhances the passenger experience and at the same time reduces the weight of aircraft is the holly grail for the industry. The consortium aims to design and develop new lightweight aircraft seat structures for manufacture using innovative, rapid processes, incorporating background intellectual property (IP) from the consortium companies. The 18-month project will progress the seat design to programme entry level maturity and will seek engagement from existing aircraft interior manufacturers to enter production.

“Lightweight and safe components are crucial for success in motorsport and our team is excited to have the opportunity to translate these capabilities into saving airlines carbon emissions and costs,” says Craig Wilson, managing director of Williams Advanced Engineering.

All of the consortium partners bring something to the table, but the project is ultimately being led by Williams Advanced Engineering together with core partner JPA Design. British Airways and Airbus are involved to help pull the technology to market, JPA Design will provide concept designs and an already proven monocoque design, currently flying with Singapore Airlines, while certification expert SWS Certification will guide towards regulatory approvals.

This project fits with the ATI's strategy for developing new lightweight architectures and new joining methods, maintaining existing jobs and creating commercial opportunities for the UK over the next decade as the aerospace sector grows. Beyond 2030, new aircraft will be expected to deliver substantial improvements in fuel efficiency at a viable cost to support continued growth and meet environmental targets and therefore the value of lightweight structures will only increase over time.

Aircraft manufacturers and airlines value lighter weight interiors delivering improved fuel economy saving operators money, increasing route range, or enabling them to pass on weight capacity as a customer offer, such as increased baggage allowance. Airlines are keen to adopt novel seating configurations to increase passenger density and passenger experience.

The most performance critical elements of aircraft seats are typically made from machined or cast aluminium with seat manufacturers lacking experience of composites, resin systems and processes as applied to these key components. This gap means a limited uptake of composite primary structures in aircraft seating. Due to advanced tooling and manufacturing methods the consortium expects their products to be cost neutral compared to the competition.

Other customer needs include design for low cost and fast maintenance, scuff damage protection, ease of refurbishment and refresh, personalisation for different airline brands, and protection from handheld battery-powered devices being jammed in mechanisms creating a fire risk. British Airways and Airbus both see benefits in these areas from the project.