The Trouble With Segregation In An Airline Environment

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A recent article on CNBC and the Daily Mail has highlighted how Saudia is considering segregating male and female passengers onboard its planes. Whilst we take this story with a pinch of salt, it does highlight how design onboard can either aid or hinder an airline’s core requirements.  Whilst the laws have allegedly come in force from the Saudi government rather than the airline themselves, this comes from a very reserved nation, which has some of the strictest rules, especially for females.

It should be noted that the airline itself, is a fairly progressive company in Saudi Arabia, employing females to serve onboard (although not nationals) and offering women’s only booking offices with all the same comfort and amenities. That said, they do respect their local custom, there is a prayer area onboard (no different to Etihad or Emirates that both offer the same) and a prayer from the Qur’an is played onboard before each departure. Also, it should be noted, that like Royal Brunei, the carrier is a dry airline. Whilst a sensitive subject, at thedesignair.net, we have no major issue with each country applying their national laws to an airline, after all, currently, passenger is still king, and usually has at least two carriers on every major international route in the world. So if you don’t agree with a certain airline’s rules, then a passenger can always select another carrier.

A Question of Custom

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Back in March 2014, Honour Branding was tasked with reimagining Saudia’s product, to keep it up to date with its more lavish regional competition. They collaborated with Acumen DA for the First Class offering, and the overall finish is amazing, and to be honest, we salute what the design teams have done to install a sense of national pride into the carrier. However, the beautifully appointed final concept (probably due to the requirements of the carrier) has included a highly-populated First Class cabin, bucking the trend of all of its 1 x 2 x 1 configured Gulf-region competitors.

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The 2 x 2 x 2 seating in First Class (the same as in business class) doesn’t help the fact that passengers could be sat next to strangers on a flight, but to a more international audience, would perhaps be more appealing, as travelling with a partner nowadays in First usually means being separated by a fairly substantial distance. The new Saudia First Class seats effectively cocoon two passengers in relative privacy, and even then, each passenger has ample personal space, if travelling alone.

However, the reconfiguration of the older 2 x 3 x 2 business seating to a more spacious 2 x 2 x 2 seating on their new 777s could be seen as an improvement for passenger privacy, as the three middle seats in business have historically been a quagmire of social inconveniences, with either 3 single travellers sitting together or a couple and a solo traveller, or – very rarely – a family or business booking of three people. So on one hand, a 2 x 2 x 2 seating could be seen as a negative, whilst on the other hand, an improvement on three seats across. These design dilemmas are often addressed and considered, and the outcome can be purely based on the operational requirements of the airline or the real-estate calculation of passenger vs cost instead of aesthetic or passenger comfort.

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Oman Air (pictured above) have come up with a fairly successful solution, still offering a seat design of 2 x 2 x 2. The centre seats act as a pair, perfect for those travelling together, yet the window seats are slightly staggered, offering each passenger aisle-access whilst also offering more privacy for solo travellers. This may become a more common layout in the coming years in business class.

Small Travellers Have A Big Impact

Segregation isn’t anything new. Seating in economy has always been the hardest logistical jigsaw for positioning passengers together. There hasn’t been a flight we have been on, where there hasn’t been a small gathering at the gate desk, asking to be re-sat next to loved ones. With the advent of the double decker, especially the A380, seat configurations have helped separate passengers further, with child-free zones now appearing on Malaysia Airlines A380’s top deck economy section. Air Asia X and Scoot, low cost carriers, have also dabbled with the child-free zone concept.

The last row of business classes has always been seen as an inferior position for business travellers, as their backs act as a bulkhead for economy of premium economy, where a thin wall can be all there is between them and the possibility of a baby, who may or may not scream their way through the flight. Family zones have become a new way of gathering the loudest of passengers together in one area. Malaysia Airlines have implemented this on their A380s. Other carriers, such as Gulf Air and Etihad also offer Sky Nannies, who can cater for children, usually entertaining them in the back galley away from the ears of fellow passengers.

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Thomson are experimenting with the idea for their future aircraft cabins, be even offering train-style seating for families to be greater entertained, but this design highlights the inefficiencies of an aircraft layout when it comes to catering for passenger lifestyles. These seats take up a lot of real estate and space is wasted. This space therefore means increasing the cost per ticket of the passengers located in these zones, which when predominantly utilised by children, mean the cost becomes ineffective for a carrier to consider it.

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Other carriers, like China Airlines, Azul or originally Air New Zealand, have customised their economy seats to offer more comfort in certain rows of their economy cabin. China Airlines have dedicated 10 rows of seats to their Sky Couch, meaning passengers with children looking for a little more space may be dedicated to this special zone onboard, whilst taking no extra real estate.

This cost consideration is the biggest design restriction on any design team or seat designer. Every inch counts, and there has to be huge justification for the increase in seat space for a passenger to pay the premium for the ticket. Even on a medium haul carrier, such as an A320 or 737 means the loss of just one inch of legroom per passenger, could increase the seat count by 6 per plane, and as such reducing the cost of each ticket fractionally.

An Ever-Changing Short Haul Demand

Short haul carriers also struggle with the ever changing landscape of regular shuttle service between metropolitan city pairs. Even a small change in departure time can make the difference between a heavy Business Class (or regional First Class) contingent on the aircraft. As such airlines predominantly around Europe offer a flexible Business Class section, usually separated by a moveable curtain. This allows for greater flexibility, and greater revenue, however, passenger comfort is greatly reduced. The result is a similar sized seat, same leg room, and usually only a ‘free middle seat’ and improved catering being the only benefit to a passenger who pays a fairly substantial increase in cost.

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This flexible separation between passengers has offered a financial gain to carriers (needed for them to survive) but has yet to be solved efficiently with successfully-adaptable seat comfort. No doubt with the increasing speed in which seats are being designed around passenger requirements, a new seat product will be released in the near future.

A Historic Issue

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Segregation based on passenger type is nothing new, even in the JetSet Era of the 1960’s passengers were separated based on their smoking preference, originally with smokers being given predominance on the aircraft. This may be the first sign of a design resolution within the aircraft environment, as smoking passengers were then seated in the rear of the aircraft, as cabin ventilation meant less circulation of the smoke by the air being extracted near the rear of the aircraft. Only in the 1980s did passengers start to experience fully non-smoking flights, starting with United Airlines back in 1971, before smoking regulators managed to u-turn this decision in 1984.

In Conclusion

The creation of high-density passenger transport, which is driven heavily by weight, cost of fuel and vastly expensive equipment, will always mean that design within the airline industry will be a smorgasbord of compromises. Passenger comfort has only really become a priority over the past few years as passenger choice has increased and competition has grown, due to the deregulation of the industry. Whilst there are a wealth of family zones, child free zones and quiet zones, there is no surprise that culture could drive the implementation of gender segregation as well, especially for such a historically religious country.

The fact the progressive airline isn’t making set zones for female and male passengers, and instead has allegedly been given instruction to just carefully seat passengers around each cabin to ensure differently-sexed passengers aren’t sat next to a stranger, isn’t anything dramatic or sensational, and shouldn’t effect an international traveller at all.

Design will continue to be a struggle between ergonomics and aesthetics. Whilst airline travel resembles what it does today, only subtle changes will adapt the passenger experience, something more radical could only be achieved when technology allows for greater space and flexibility in the shape of the environment seating inhabits.

2 comments

  1. Reblogged this on FlyerZ Blog and commented:
    Un interessantissimo articolo da Thedesignair.net prendendo spunto dalla diatriba nata in seguito alla possibilità di creare zone separate per uomini o donne a bordo degli aerei della Saudia

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