One CEO says he has 'solved the elbow wars' on passenger airplanes
The dreaded middle airplane seat is about to come with a silver lining.
On 50 mystery passenger planes, set for delivery in 2020, middle seat passengers will get their own arm rest space, plus about two more inches of seat width compared to their right and left row mates.
Last month, the Federal Aviation Administration certified the new design, created by Molon Labe Seating, a startup engineering firm based in Colorado. In about two months, the North American airline that purchased the first set of seats will reveal its plans to offer them on commercial flights.
“We’ve solved the elbow wars,” Hank Scott, founder and CEO of Molon, said. “When you sit on the plane and someone decides I'm going to steal the armrest, because our armrest comes in two heights, you can't physically put your arm on an armrest that is staggered. So if you sit in the middle seat, the lower portion of the armrest — the portion that is further back — belongs to you. Now if the person next to you wants to steal that, it’s going to be uncomfortable.”
‘You could save a lot of fuel — a lot!”
The design was born out of airline efforts to boost profits. By broadening aisle space, airlines reasoned, they could reduce boarding and unloading times by approximately 4 to 6 minutes, and in turn, burn less fuel and spend less time on the ground in between flights. As a solution, Molon created a “slide-slip” aisle seat that could pocket slightly over the middle seat to open up additional aisle space.
“You could save a lot of fuel — a lot!” Scott said. “That was the genesis of the company, was the side-slip seat, but an odd byproduct of that was, in order to make the seats be able to slide, we had to build a staggered layout.”
The staggered layout or S1 model, which has no sliding seat, is what passengers will first be able to enjoy. The model leaves aisle width, as is. So far, Molon has three seat designs: S1, S2, and S3, all of which stagger so that the middle seat drops back slightly behind the two adjacent seats.
“It's a very risk-averse industry. If we were a massive big company, and we came out with a side-slip seat, it would already be fine,” Scott said. “But because we’re new and no one's heard of us, people get nervous and that’s understandable, so we decided to de-innovate the product.”
The company is also working on a modification to its S3 design, which slides end seats over middle seats to open aisle space, to allow wheelchair-confined passengers to travel in their own wheelchair.
“We're looking at adapting that into the business class section so you’d have two really big seats. You slide one over the top of the other and all of a sudden, you've got 30 inches — you can put a 26 inch wide wheelchair there. A person who is a quadriplegic could actually fly.”
Scott said his designs takes into account both the physical size of each plane seat, as well as usable space. Airlines that wish to install his S1 seat design will not need to compromise on the number of seats that fit into their aircraft. Instead, he said, the compromise is in front-to-back pitch, or legroom offered for the various classes of service.
“For Frontier Airlines, half of its seats are at a shorter pitch, which is the front to back legroom. So half of the aircraft is shorter by an inch. Over the whole length of the aircraft, they’d probably end up with one extra seat out of the 10 to 20 rows that have a shorter pitch.”
Molon’s designs are manufactured by Primus aerospace in Denver.
Scott, who is a former Australian Navy test flight instructor, previous avionics and weapons system flight tester for Lockheed Martin’s Sikorsky (LMT), as well as an engineering instructor at the University of Colorado, started the company in 2011.
He said while his company will be profitable from day one, he finds it unfortunate that an immediate need for additional capital means initiating a $5 million raise.
“You would think that it means that we're all very happy, but in reality it meant I had to go out and do a series A because I need a lot of engineers right now,” he said. “I need many more engineers right now. I need 4 to 5 engineers yesterday.” When airlines purchase seats, seemingly minor changes to color, for example, require renewed FAA-regulated testing.
So far, Molon has funded its operations with about 20 investors, mostly including family and friends.
For Scott, diluting company ownership beyond his original investor group has its own silver lining.
“People of restricted mobility — the ability to get on a plane by themselves, fly without any effort — that's what I want to go to my grave, saying get yeah, if you're in a wheelchair, you can fly fine without having to transfer without having to have a system so that you can just be independent, and the series A will give me enough engineers to put one or two of them on that project alone.”
Alexis Keenan is a New York-based reporter for Yahoo Finance and former litigation attorney.
Follow Alexis Keenan on Twitter @alexiskweed.