These days, jet air travel is less of a glamorous Don Draper adventure and often more of a tedious ordeal. The cabin air doesn’t help as passengers suffer sinus troubles and can’t stay warm or cool enough for comfort. At the ILA Berlin Air Show running September 11 - 16, the Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics (IBP) will reveal to the public a new airline seat that provides air passengers with individual climate control that may make even traveling coach a bit more pleasant.
Commercial airliners operate at about 35,000 feet (10,000 m). At that altitude, the plane’s cabin needs to be pressurized not just to keep the passengers comfortable, but to keep them alive. This is done by bleeding compressed air from the jet engines, cooling it and then feeding it into the cabin. It works, but because the fuselage of a passenger plane isn’t very strong, the pressure is kept at the equivalent of an altitude of about 8,000 feet (2,400 m). Although the newest airliners have pressure equivalent to 6,000 feet (1,800 m).
This does the job and the quality of the air is very good, but its not very pleasant. Aside from having less oxygen than normal, passengers often feel too warm or too cold. Part of the reason for this is the very low humidity in the cabin. A proper humidity setting is not only important to feel generally comfortable, it also helps to keep mucous membranes moist, so a plane trip is like a quick trip to the Andes for the susceptible. Passengers often experience symptoms such as slight headaches, dry sinuses, lightheadedness. sore throats, chapped lips, dry or watery eyes and, in some people, the unpleasantness can last for days after the flight.
The airlines aren’t being cruel. The low humidity is necessary to prevent condensation, which can cause mold and is very bad for the aluminum structures in planes. Water collecting in odd spots here and there can result in expensive repairs or dangerous weaknesses.
The only recourse that passengers currently have in making the air more comfortable are simple blowers, but these aren’t much use and they’re switched off a lot of the time.
Since adjusting cabin temperature and humidity for the entire cabin isn’t feasible, IBP, working with a consortium of nine companies, is developing an airline seat with individual seat heating and ventilation, and an adjustable air supply.
According to Dr. Gunnar Grün, head of department “indoor climate” at IBP, “You need various components that we engineered within the consortium. Humidifier units deliver greater humidity, air purifier technologies filter unwanted substances from the air, optimized vents allow fresh air to flow in, and the passengers can set their own personal comfort temperatures through the seat heaters, just like the ones we find in cars today. And there is seat ventilation that draws in heat and moisture between body and seat, thus keeping the seat comfortably cool.”
The IBP seats use seat heaters and air inlets integrated into armrests and backrests. First class passengers have inlets in their gooseneck reading lamps as well. In developing the seat, researchers simulated the airstreams for different air inlet configurations, airflow, optimum exchange rate of air, humidity and what level of control over the settings the passengers should have.
The system was tested with the front end of an Airbus A310 inside a 30 meter (98.42 ft) tube. This could be depressurized, cooled and dehumidified to the equivalent of up to about 13,000 meters (43,000 ft). Fifty test subjects then “flew” in the plane with the cabin pressurized to about 2,100 m (7,000 ft). During the “flight,” the subjects could test the systems and determine which ones gave them the best personal climate setting.
Visitors to the ILA Berlin Air Show will be able to try the seat for themselves. IBP says that the seats will not be available commercially for a few years.