Julie Baxter

Airline seats are designed for sitting but increasingly passengers head onboard looking for their beds, Julie Baxter discovers how inflight suppliers are working to support restful sleep.

Wellbeing experts all agree. Sleep is absolutely key to both good mental and physical health. And for travellers messing with their body clocks, good sleep en route has become a top priority. First class seats, converted to beds, have led the way but now there is growing demand for seat liners and mattresses to add comfort solutions in Business too.

Fernanda Veiga, at Kaelis, says: “A seat mattress provides that extra element of comfort that allows passengers to forget they are on a flight, and that is the key to ensuring good sleep. They help to improve the travel experience, making passengers feel more relaxed, especially on a long-haul flight. We approach each mattress and bedding project with the aim of bringing `home´comforts onboard. That is what makes the difference.”

Home comforts

She reports this becoming more of a priority and says: “Some airlines are now keen to invest in that feeling of home and if your airline is not, we believe you should take immediate action! If airlines can’t afford a full retrofit, this kind of product allows them to compete with the established suite-business class services and dramatically improve the passenger experience.”

She accepts there are challenges: “There is not a one-size-fits-all solution, as each seat is different and even within the same airline, you can find different types of cabins and seats. We aim to find the perfect combination of fabric, fillings and structures to keep the right temperature and the right thickness for comfort whilst also ensuring it’s all easily folded and stored. We also harmonise all the elements the passenger sees, to give a cohesive look and feel.” She believes the investment pays off fast in terms of passenger satisfaction.

Grit Peschke is a textile engineer working on mattress projects and developments at LSG Group’s Spiriant. She says: “Size is key. Storage limitations mean a mattress must be as small as possible but at the same time as comfortable and soft as possible. Some airlines want the mattress to cover the whole seat, but it is possible to save weight, space and costs through careful design. It may not be essential for the mattress to run under the pillow space, for example, or we can shape the design to provide support and comfort at the points it is most needed.”

New solutions

A new option showcased by Spiriant at WTCE, for example, was a 3D knitted mattress created in one piece with the shell and filling designed to provide greater support around the hips and shoulders, where it is most needed for comfort. By prioritising this padding, weight, stowage space and price can be reduced.

Peschke works with multiple layers and increasingly uses sustainable materials such as biological cotton, recycled polyester, terry cotton, tensel and palm.

While some carriers favour memory foam Peschke believes other materials are more practical and cost effective. She says: “A mattress can be made from a simple layer of foam but for real comfort we recommend combining this with a spacer fabric – a light material comprised of soft plastic needle-like supports – 6mm, 8mm or 12mm long. This lightweight layer adds comfort and has moisture management qualities which are important.”

Spiriant has noted growing interest from airlines investing in products to support good sleep and believes this reflects wellbeing trends and the growth of signature mattresses and pillow menus now well established in hotels.

She agrees that the ‘at home’ feel is key and adds: “Key to good rest is comfort and that means a soft and supportive environment, moisture management, temperature control, and that ‘at home’ experience. These combine to make it easier to fall asleep and rest.”

Spiriant has worked with Audi to draw inspiration from the comfort seating of the luxury car sector and also works with high-end German bedding brand Paradises. It hopes to announce another bedding brand partnership shortly.

Brand collaborations

Well known for its cutting-edge brand collaborations is WESSCO International which has facilitated the Casper programme for American Airlines and the DUXIANA range of soft goods onboard Etihad Airways. WESSCO’s cmo, Petros Sakkis, says: “A brand needs to match the airline and class experience. Each brand brings its own philosophy, narrative, and outlook with regards to materials, technology, design, sustainability, and its contribution to societal and environmental causes. Certain brands offer a more natural ‘fit’ for certain airlines, so we look to identify which best complements and adds value to each airline’s cabin experience. For passengers there is the added benefit of trying out branded products that they are excited to experience.”

Quality focus

The Swedish luxury bedding brand DUXIANA was chosen for its high-quality features developed around the DUX Bed using high-performance, sustainable materials to create an ergonomically correct mattress. The brand is already used by top hotels in the Jumeirah group and The Langham, New York. The onboard programme had to follow the highest quality standards and use high-performance, sustainable materials, in alignment with DUXIANA’s environmental strategy.

For each new soft goods programme the WESSCO team also evaluates life-cycle, seat specifications, stowage, folding or rolling, and works to customise to the airline requirements. Sakkis adds: “We keep a close eye on all materials and product developments in the luxury bedding and soft goods industry, but the main focus of innovation is to evolve the offer to suit an airline’s needs. Certain regions, for example, request firm mattresses while others opt for softer options. First and foremost it’s about delivering a reliable programme for airlines.

“Our industry typically works with very tight timelines to adapt established labels’ products for inflight use according to detailed specifications and regulations. Each programme has its own unique set of parameters but has to address product life-cycle, fabric quality and storage among others.”

Sleep science

In the case of Casper for American Airlines, WESSCO had to take account of different seat shapes and configurations, Casper’s different products, materials and technologies, and match these for use within an inflight cabin environment. Casper’s engineers applied their expertise in sleep research and sleep science, and worked closely with both WESSCO and American Airlines to experiment with different designs and material combinations until the final sleep set was finally fully developed.

Galileo Watermark currently supplies mattresses to Hawaiian, Qantas and Air Serbia. The Qantas mattress, part of the Sheridan branded offer, stands out as it is an air foam mattress, crafted using cells of air for continued support and to ensure consistent performance in cool or warm conditions. It offers all the advantages of memory foam, moulding to the body for total sleeping comfort, but recovers its shape in 5-6 seconds. No harmful chemicals are used in its manufacture and the material lasts 9-10 years. It is lighter in weight than the sheepskin mattress that preceded it, and rolls and re-packs easily. Alexander Atkinson, sales director APAC, says: “Mattress pads add to the comfort of the passenger onboard and should make the sleep experience more reflective of a traditional sleep environment, emulating that ‘hotel in the sky’ feel.”

Pushing boundaries

Nicky Upton, airline services director at Matrix, accepts that brands often have useful expertise. She says: “Brands will often bring a more specialist knowledge of a product category to the development of the mattress. They have greater consumer insight and follow a set of values for a product category that cannot be compromised. This influences us as manufacturer and supplier to push boundaries of development, with the brand knowledge as our guide.”

The company has been focused on the challenge of combining high-level comfort through lightweight, space-saving materials. Its team has developed two new innovations. The first is AirBlend, a type of wading that is currently used in duvets, made from 100% recycled plastic. It is manufactured by layering fibres together instead of clumps of polyester being used. This layering technique allows air to be trapped in the fibres giving greater distribution of heat, and using less fibres. Upton says: “The up side of this development is an incredibly efficient, light weight and comfortable product.”

A sister product, AirStream, uses similar technology and is currently used in mattress toppers, emulating memory foam for comfort, but without the disadvantage of making the passenger sweat. It is a lighter-weight option and allows heat to dissipate more easily.

Upton adds: “These technologies, along with using recycled fibres and regenerated cotton, are the start of re-engineering product to tick all the boxes for both the airline and passenger.”

Value opportunity

She believes mattresses are a unique opportunity to add value.”The mattress is almost a staple for airlines now and bloggers are quick to review this piece of the sleep kit onboard, or highlight the lack of it. The mattress and pillow are often the two items that passengers identify as the elements that helped or hindered their sleep onboard most.

“Will passengers choose to fly with one airline over another because of a mattress? Maybe not, but it’s a real gamble not to include one. If the lack of the product leads to poor sleep quality or rest, it will definitely impact the overall flight experience and satisfaction levels.”