Please Be Seated
The material is meant to protect, not to disguise, what sits beneath. White and shapeless, the cloth covering the cabin seat built for the Gulfstream G500 nonetheless adds to the mystique of an innovation some predict will be the latest from Gulfstream to change the business aviation industry.
The cover is pulled away—carefully, without voilà flair or accompanying drumroll—and the typical examination begins. The exquisite, must-touch leather. The precise, how-did-they-do-that-pattern stitching and quilting. The graceful curves and contours that make this seat the centerpiece of personal style and comfort.
“Just wait until you sit in it,” says Mitch Jones, who walks past the seat multiple times a day in his role as the operations manager of Gulfstream’s seat and carpet shop. “That’s where it’s really different.”
More like distinct. The seats designed for the G500 and G600, which will enter service in the coming months and late next year respectively, represent a fundamental change in approach to aircraft cabin seat design.
For decades, the formula was to develop one seat from a structural standpoint—frame and cushioning—and cover it in a variety of trims. The engineers and designers created aesthetically pleasing seats built to absorb the airworthiness G-force loads mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration. The plush furnishings were enough to woo customers whose main purchasing drivers rarely involved the seats.
But the business jet market has evolved rapidly in the last decade. Aircraft like the Gulfstream G650ER and Gulfstream G650 have stretched nonstop travel ranges, and thereby the amount of time passengers spend seated. And customer attitudes increasingly reflect a desire to be as comfortable onboard as they are in their automobiles or favorite chairs at home.
“The seats are the single most important element in the cabin,” says Tray Crow, director of interior design, Gulfstream. “With the G500, G600 and the G650, we worked diligently to ensure we were delivering on comfort, functionality and aesthetics. You can have an exquisite cabin environment, but if the seat does not meet these criteria, you’ve failed.”
"We pushed the boundaries with the design."
Building a Better Seat
Historians credit the ancient Egyptians with inventing what is known today as the chair, with examples found in tombs. For all the improvements over the last 4,000 years, Gulfstream’s pros still found room to innovate.
The structural advances encompass the frame components and the foam cushioning. Torsion bars were added to eliminate any shifting. New foam layering techniques ergonomically match densities to the areas of the body supported by different parts of the seat.
The foam layering process is so revolutionary Gulfstream has submitted it for a patent.
Reinventing the seat also involved reshaping the arms to better fit where a passenger’s forearms and hands naturally rest when sitting. The adjustable headrest is not the usual wide, flat piece but is instead shaped—and cushioned—specifically for the head.
“The attention to detail that went into the design and engineering of every inch of these seats is remarkable,” Jones says. “We started with one prototype and went through iteration after iteration until every detail was refined and refined again. Getting there was a journey, but we’re finding out it was worth it.”
Gulfstream’s development team also discovered that one seat would not fit all. Leveraging customer feedback, they identified two more styles beyond the classic form that would elevate the cabin experience, depending on the type of mission the aircraft is frequently used for.
One, the minimalist, is aimed at operators who travel long distances with a high number of passengers. The seats have a simple design and ample cushioning. When laid flat, or berthed, they provide the comfort of a bed without the need for a seat-top mattress. The other, the sport, resembles a sportscar seat, with curves, contours and extra padding, or bolstering, that embraces the body.
“We pushed the boundaries with the design,” Crow says. “The sport seat, for example, is unlike anything we’ve ever seen in the industry. It was so different we were hesitant at first, but we felt strongly there was something there. Once we built it and sat in it and realized how it changes the experience, we knew we’d hit the mark.”
Only then did the design team turn the focus to trim and aesthetics. New techniques for leather stretching were incorporated into the craftsmanship process. Investments were made in decorative stitching and quilting machines to complement the handcrafted work done by Gulfstream’s upholstery stitchers.
The designers developed three trim options for each of the three styles of seats. Once a customer chooses a seat, he or she will then personalize it through stitching, cording and quilting choices.
“With these seats, there’s an acceptance that it’s the feel of the seats, the ergonomics, that matters most,” says Jaime Jimenez, a craftsman in Gulfstream’s seat shop. “And in the end, the attention to every detail resulted in some of the most beautiful seats we’ve ever made.”
Aesthetics—the eye test—is an artistic exercise. For a seat to be beautifully comfortable, however, requires science.
The seat developers used technology, like pressure sensor mapping, and research studies to evaluate comfort levels. The pressure mapping identified how weight is distributed while a person is seated and how a person typically shifts positions over a length of time, allowing engineers to refine foam densities and layering as well as other structural components to optimize comfort.
The research studies, meanwhile, provided direct feedback taking into account personal biases about comfort. These tests included simulated flights conducted in the Cabin Integration Test Facility, a full-scale mock-up of the G500 cabin. Participants sat in the seats and executed other common in-flight tasks, such as getting up, moving about the cabin and returning to the seat, for hours, providing feedback during and after the experiments.
“The testing has proved invaluable, especially the work in the cabin ITF,” says Aram Kasparian, an industrial designer specializing in new product development who was on the seat team. “You can test not only comfort but functionality in a real-world setting. The maneuverability and placement of the controls and how they are manipulated evolved significantly. If something isn’t just right, we make a change and go to the next iteration, and we come right back into the lab to test again.”
Customers contributed to the development as well. Seats were tested at the biannual Customer Advisory Board and Advanced Technology Customer Advisory Team sessions in 2016. Prototypes were featured in the Gulfstream display at the 2016 NBAA-BACE show. The development team collected all the feedback and continued to refine the seats.
Gulfstream even incorporated the seats into the G500 flight test program. One of the five test aircraft was outfitted with a full cabin in large part so the seats could be vetted under actual flight conditions.
“We learned so much and made so many improvements during the design and development process—the seats that will end up in the first customer aircraft are totally different than the seat we started with,” Crow says. “This experience is sure to drive future enhancements and improvements in our products.”
And soon make Gulfstream seats as iconic as the signature oval windows, T-tails and flight deck innovations.
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