A flight attendant uses a mobile phone while sitting inside an aircraft, China (Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg)

The Airline Seat of the Future Will Clean Itself

(Bloomberg) -- The microbes lurking in airplane seats, hotbeds of infectious diseases, could soon be history.

Recaro Aircraft Seating GmbH, whose customers include Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd., says it’s developing a seat infused with a disinfectant that destroys almost every germ on contact within seconds. It’s a response to studies that consistently show almost everything inside an aircraft cabin is festering with bugs.

These business-class seats won’t just cleanse themselves, but will also somehow inform each incoming passenger how well it has done the job, Recaro Chief Executive Officer Mark Hiller said in an interview. The seats may debut within a year or two.

The Airline Seat of the Future Will Clean Itself

The quest for germ-free travel is part of an industry effort to make flying less taxing on the body as non-stop 17-hour marathons become common. As the tube-like design of commercial jets has barely changed in decades, seating has become the focus of comfort and a key point of difference.

Tomorrow’s airborne chairs -- at least in business class -- will be a digitized and customized living area, Hiller said by phone from Hong Kong. As well as being sanitized, Recaro’s seats will give massages and predict backaches. Eventually, they might even have their own bar.

“Individualization is really the key,” said Hiller, 45. The goal, he said, is to create “a hotel room in the sky.”

The Airline Seat of the Future Will Clean Itself

Spreading Disease

Recaro, which competes with Thompson Aero Seating Ltd., Zodiac Aerospace, and Rockwell Collins Inc., makes about 120,000 plane seats a year. Boeing Co. Dreamliners operated by Qantas Airways Ltd. on the recently started Perth-London direct route are fitted with seats made by the German manufacturer.

Rockwell Collins offers seats with an antimicrobial coating, though they’re optional and not every airline chooses them, said Alex Pozzi, the company’s vice president of technology and seating development.

As airlines fly ever-longer routes, passenger health has become a priority. Contagious diseases can be transmitted swiftly through a plane: After fliers on a 2008 flight from Boston to Los Angeles contracted diarrhea, forcing an emergency diversion to Chicago, investigators concluded norovirus had spread in just three hours.

The Airline Seat of the Future Will Clean Itself

One square inch of a seat-belt buckle can be home to 1,100 viable bacteria and fungal cells, according to a January report that analyzed swabs from around the cabin. A 2014 study at Auburn University in Alabama found that MRSA -- a super-bug resistant to many antibiotic treatments -- can live for a week in the fabric of a seat pocket nestled in a small blob of saliva.

Anti-Bacterial Fabric

While anti-bacterial coatings are available for hard surfaces, Recaro is trying to achieve the same lasting result on fabric, said Hiller. The company’s still figuring out how the seat would tell passengers it’s clean, he said.

“The best innovation doesn’t help if you cannot show it,” Hiller said.

The Airline Seat of the Future Will Clean Itself

Recaro’s business-class seats already cost as much as 80,000 euros ($95,000). In future, they’ll offer more control over the noise, light and temperature in a passenger’s personal airspace, according to Hiller. A door or partition will provide more privacy, he said.

A seat might even be able to improve a traveler’s posture by warning a slumped passenger of impending pain, he said.

“There’s still more to do and more improvement possible,” Hiller said.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.