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Whether during a safety video or a midnight dream, virtually every passenger ever to set foot on an airplane has pondered what would happen in the event of an emergency. With that thought, did you know that many top first and business class seats are equipped with air bags? If you were about to ask whether economy seats share the same fate, you’d be correct in assuming a resounding no. They don’t. Business class seats, especially those found on international flights are a fascinating beast of their own, involving a never ending set of challenges including branding issues, passenger criterion and of course, incredible expense. 

To create an experience worthy of thousands of dollars, airlines must create a seat which evokes feelings of luxury, comfort and functionality. In doing so, the average business class seat costs an airline a cool $80,000. That’s per seat, per plane and thats low end. Of course if your airline is amongst those that strive for exclusivity and industry standards it’s an entirely different ball game. A custom or modified version of one of these “base models” can fetch a whopping $500,000 and the process of reaching a finished product is quite fascinating. Like buying a car, you visit a showroom, are shown the “standard” models, some additional bells and whistles, trim options and all the things that can make your seat special. Leather or cloth? Suede accents? Perhaps some special brand color stitching? Of course, like buying a car, every little plus you wish to add packs a punch in price and unfortunately for the airlines, studies show that consumers prefer strongly branded products. Essentially give someone the choice between two identical seats or one inferior seat with branding and the branded inferior seat or the branded equal seat wins out over the generic in customer opinion every time. So that’s a yes to all the extra color and fabric options, stitching and distinctive add ons. Interestingly, it’s not just buying the seat that makes for a majority of the cost, it’s testing and certifying it to be safe. 

Air bags appearing exclusively in first and business isn’t quite as sinister as you may have guessed. The reasoning is that you have more space in front and behind you and therefore in any type of incident, you’d have further to travel and something must arrest your… undesired travel. As one would hope on a flying tin can hurling through the air at over 500mph, everything that goes on board must be extremely flame resistant, able to withstand impact and create a safe and stable environment. Essentially, no pieces flying around during take off. With any certification worth it’s salt that means destroying quite a few seats, hurling some at over 10 atmospheres of G force in simulated crashes and of course lighting a few on fire; or trying at least. 

30-60 seats per plane, 10-100 or more planes all multiplied by $500,000. You don’t need to be a code breaker to get to a very basic and very high figure for developing a new seat. On top of the financial and safety hurdles there is a race against time. It takes a cycle of around five years to create a functional custom product, test it and install it. During that time of course, competition can stiffen and innovate at a higher level. Essentially, when you launch a product you better mean it and it better be something that will compete for years. It’s not cheap and it’s very, very competitive.

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