“I am ashamed to say that airlines haven’t really done anything in the economy class passenger comfort for the past decades, so I would say that our goal is really to change that.”
The words are an insider, a previous airline executive’s take, Mr Jere Tala, CCO at AirGo Design Pte Ltd. He is known to many from his previous roles working for Finnair, as well as Qatar Airways in Asia.
“Airlines don’t really care about your comfort, but about the weight of the seat and how many seats they can fit inside one aircraft and so on,” Jere explains further in connection to his new adventure within Singapore’s emerging start-up scene.
AirGo Design, with a very strong Nordic connection in its team, is working on innovating next-generation airline seats and with a fantastically interesting product for the majority of us, to be launched come Q3 2016. All we have to hope for is that the airlines can be convinced this time.
The enthusiastic entrepreneurs behind the AirGo Design team also includes the other Finns Henri Holm (previously with Nokia and Rovio Entertainment in Asia) and CEO and Co-Founder Mikko Alanko (based in Asia since 2002) as well as Swedish citizens CLO & Co-Founder Maziar Jahanshahi (founder of Scalado) and Ali Jahanshahi.
It was co-founding designer & inventor (also a renowned materials scientist) Alireza Yaghoubi who came with the innovation forming the basis for this business idea that has such huge market potential.
After travelling in Iran (where all aircraft are very old due to the previous embargos) and swopping to a brand new plane with one of the world’s top airlines in the Middle East, he had asked himself: “How is it possible that when I was sitting in the 40 years old aircraft it was actually more comfortable than in the seat I am now sitting in?”
The idea was born there and then, based on his aggravations and others’ complaints about neck pain, poor blood circulation and backache caused by the primitive ergonomics in economy class.
“There is a potential to do something big and really change the industry,” he had concluded.
“94 per cent still travel in economy class; people just don’t have the possibility of paying the difference, upgrading to business class. The bigger price difference is huge,” Jere points out.
Business class has been in more less totally in focus for all innovations when it comes to the seats. In Economy, meanwhile, seats on planes are really not different from those used back in the 1980’s.
With a sketch of an ideal seat Alireza won a design competition and that set things in motion for the start-up.
The principle behind the AirGo Design is that each seat occupies an independent space that doesn’t impinge on the others and offers unparalleled seat comfort. This can make flying in economy class better for all of us, while the game-changer for airlines are the huge savings they will be able to obtain.
The impossible becomes possible
The airline industry is really conservative, so even when Jere himself first met the team and they showed him the drawings that they had made, his first statement had been: ‘No way – it’s not possible’.
“Because in the aviation industry they are all a very inward-looking, conservative bunch of people,” he recalls. “Nobody wants to try something completely different and new.”
“So it’s been a really great experience for me as well to really open my eyes and look at what can be done and not.”
There are two additional key reasons for the standstill up to now within this conservative industry; lack of technology being one.
“Technical advances with composite materials have taken huge leaps forward only in recent years. Second, the seat market being practically run by only three big companies producing aircraft seats. Their order books are completely full for the next 3 – 5 years. Airlines come to their doors knocking so they don’t have to innovate.”
Reduced body pressure
Enter the upcoming revolutionising sitting concept AirGo seat (patent-pending), which will be a new economy class air passenger seat design; branded as more ergonomic, less intrusive on other passengers and more economically viable than current designs.
“The floor space is exactly as today’s seats; it’s just a numbers game. If you give more leg space it means you’ll have less seats and no airline would buy a seat that takes more floor space. We have redesigned our seats so that within the same floor space of current seats take we are able to give passengers up to 4 inches more leg space, just be re-designing the seat and how you actually sit on it,” explains Jere.
For improved comfort 3D body scanning has also been used, which makes it different from the existing seat producers.
“The seat is not flat but curved, following your body contour. And the use of so-called memory foam paddings with different density – some softer, some harder – makes the long-haul sitting effect less painful than today where the seat is made from the same material everywhere and thus the pressure to your body the same everywhere. So it’s based on your sitting posture, since certain parts of your body touch the seat heavier than other parts when sitting for a longer time.”
“We want to bring improved comfort also into the economy cabin – while at the same time keeping in mind that it’s the airline who runs the business. They have to be able to make a profit – and that is why our seats use this new technology that makes the seat up to 50 per cent lighter than today! That will be a huge benefit for the airline,” states the CCO.
“Obviously we want to change the whole world. We believe that once an airline starts using our seats and people really experience it, this will change the way how we all travel,” states Jere.
At an aircraft interior expo in Singapore, come October, the AirGo seat will have its global launch. The strategy is to aim for long haul routes as a premium product.
“That narrows it down to the leading airlines. The other thing is that the client has to be innovative and ahead of the curve; doing things that the others have not been doing.”
“Singapore is definitely an aviation hub in Asia, where we have one of the strongest airlines in the world, and there’s a lot of manufacturing and all kinds of aviation-related industries here. This was a natural place for us to start in.”
They are, in parallel, currently in the lengthy prototyping and certification processes.
“We’ve been working on this for about two years and it’s not only the aviation industry – we are now being contacted by companies within railways, ferries, long haul bus travel, even from electric bus companies that think our seat is so cool, asking us for custom designs. The potential is huge. Our core is however aviation because that is where we started out and what we are focusing on first. But we see that this really can expand into many other industries as well.”
AirGo Design was self-financed until late 2015, when they received a grant from the Singapore scheme called, Spring (agency under the Ministry of Trade and Industry responsible for helping Singapore enterprises grow and building trust in Singapore products and services).
Then, in April this year they got the first external financing round from Dubai, DP World, a company operating ports via its partner TURN8. This accelerator invests in technology start-ups and support them with mentoring, training and their product launch in exchange for an equity position in the company.
Better than the corporate world
Jere was asked by the founders two years ago to join this very exciting start-up. His long experience from the airline industry benefits his role and the company.
“My aviation knowhow and network is a very important part of this but our team, which is very unique, makes it possible to bring completely new ideas to the table and we have so different backgrounds that it’s really great,” he responds.
And he would not want to return to the corporate world again.
“Once you are inside the start-up world it’s so different, it’s so exciting. But the perks in the corporate business is that every month you get the same amount of salary to your bank account, which is fantastic, whereas in the start-up world you don’t get that; you only see your bank account savings reducing month after the month.”
“Sometimes you would like to proceed much faster than you can but that’s how it goes. There are lots of disappointments but also fantastic moments and those, at the end of it, surpass the disappointing moments.”