Seat Partitions To Block Covid Raise Feasibility Questions

 - July 18, 2020, 7:00 AM
AvioInteriors' Janus concept features a center seat of a three-abreast layout positioned in the opposite direction from those on the aisle and windows. (Image: AvioInteriors)

Covid-19 has prompted several manufacturers of airliner interiors products to speed the development of systems to inhibit the spread of germs between passengers using seat partitions and transparencies. But certification experts and International Air Transport Association director general Alexandre de Juniac harbor doubts about their viability given the stringent requirements the FAA and EASA impose on any modification to aircraft seating.

Companies marketing the products include Italy’s AvioInteriors, whose fairly ambitious Janus product features a middle seat that faces in the opposite direction; Dutch firm Aviation Glass, which offers a less elaborate tempered glass divider that fits between seats; and Lyon, France-based Vision Systems, which offers a so-called “plug-and-play” transparency that does not require an adaptation to the seats. Tier 1 suppliers that have joined the effort include Safran, which bills its Ringfence product as a simple and efficient removable partition; and Lufthansa Technik, which expects its rather rudimentary plastic transparency inserted into middle-seat magazine compartments to gain supplemental type certificate (STC) approval in two to three months.   

Speaking during a June 9 conference call on the financial state of member airlines during the pandemic, de Juniac specifically raised the potential difficulties associated with emergency evacuation requirements for gaining STCs for the more elaborate concepts. “I don’t think airlines will implement this type of equipment that looks now not useful and could be difficult to certify,” he said. In fact, most of the companies began to market the products when concerns began to spread over the potential for regulations that would require open middle seats in a three-abreast seat configuration, for example. Guidelines issued since then by the International Civil Aviation Organization’s Council Aviation Recovery Task Force (CART) do not call for mandated empty seats, raising the question of whether part of the initial rationale for the partitions still exists.

Speaking with AIN from his home base outside Washington, D.C., Michael Rioux, the chief operating officer of technical services and consultancy firm JDA Aviation Technology Solutions, explained that several certification challenges could present practically impenetrable cost and time barriers.

To gain an STC with the FAA, for example, would raise weight and balance considerations as well as the need for 16-g crashworthiness, flammability, and 90-second evacuation testing. Operator manuals would need adaptation to reflect installation, cleaning, and maintenance requirements. Finally, the company marketing the product would need to prove its effectiveness in preventing airborne droplets from spreading from passenger to passenger and convince potential airlines of its utility.

“Most of the time, when someone submits a supplemental type certification plan in normal times, whenever that is, you’re looking at a couple of years,” said Rioux. “If you want to do it really fast, probably 18 to 24 months, and most of the time it’s probably 24 to 36 months.”

In terms of retesting seats to 16-g crashworthiness requirements, Rioux explained that several variables come into consideration, including how a glass or acrylic partition gets fastened to the seat. “If it’s some kind of temporary fastening system, and I’m not saying that necessarily will be the case, but if you put a 16-g load on it, what happens if it comes off?” asked Rioux. “Does it become a projectile? Does it shatter?” 

Also referencing the regulations highlighted by de Juniac involving emergency evacuation, Rioux questioned the ability of an entire load of passengers exiting an airliner within 90 seconds with seat partitions adding an extra obstacle to negotiate in a cabin filled with smoke. “When I worked in the airline industry, I actually went to [the Civil Aerospace Medical Institute in Oklahoma City], and went through an emergency evacuation,” he said. “They filled the cabin up with smoke and you couldn’t see your fingers right in front of your eyeball. And we had to get out in 90 seconds and it was tough. You literally have to crawl on your hands and knees.”

Apart from the time needed to clear regulatory hurdles, cost considerations for gaining an STC come into play. Each airline customer could need separate approval or at least a variance to account for different airplane configurations and each aircraft type would certainly need its own STC. Retired McDonnell Douglas and Boeing senior FAA certification engineer and designated engineering representative Butch Gumm estimated that an STC for such products could cost, in total, as much as $2 million. Whether or not such a cost renders a product unmarketable, said Gumm, boils down to simple economics and how the cost gets shared between the manufacturer and the customer.

“I guess it comes down to how much the airline was to spend and if the seat manufacturer is willing to absorb some of that cost, so that he’s now the guy up front who says, ‘Hey, Mr. Southwest, I’ve got this brand new [product]. I’ve already got it certified to this point and we want to put it into your airplane,’” said Gumm. “And then [the customer will] absorb the costs to do the certification for the airplane. So you've got to ask who's going to provide what funds to get things done. Now you go to, let's say United, which has a very diverse fleet of both Boeing and Airbus or whatever. You have to go through a certification process for each model of airplane. So if United is willing to spend, let's say another $150,000 per model to get that put in their airplane, it's not cheap.”

Responding to some of the certification concerns raised by De Juniac and Rioux, Aviation Glass managing director Jaap Wiersema noted that his company introduced its glass product in response to flammability issues associate with plastic shields. Calling AeroGlass “light in weight, scratch-resistant, and fireproof,” Wiersema said it already has passed 60-second burn and heat-release tests and meets requirements related to smoke density and toxicity.

Wiersema didn’t address the challenges of the evacuation tests, however, noting that responsibility lies with the design organization in charge of the installation of the product. While conceding that certification could take up to two years “in normal circumstances,” he said he expected that the parties involved—including the seat manufacturer and the engineering firm applying for the STCcan accelerate the process for this particular application.

“We are all aware that the Covid-19 crisis is not a normal situation,” said Wiersema. “If the customers and industry need this safe solution for traveling and if EASA/FAA sees this also as a priority, the process can be accelerated. A lot of testing of the AeroGlass has already been performed in connection with other applications.”