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Boeing, Airbus Show the Whip to Laggardly Seatmaker Zodiac

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Boeing, Airbus Show the Whip to Laggardly Seatmaker Zodiac

Boeing, Airbus Show the Whip to Laggardly Seatmaker Zodiac
April 03
09:22 2015

MIAMI — When aircraft are delayed going into service because seats aren’t ready in time, airframers and their airline customers start pointing fingers at the manufacturers responsible. This time it’s Zodiac, the French seatmaking conglomerate whose US subsidiary (formerly Weber Aircraft) is causing headaches — not least to the on-time delivery of American’s 787 Dreamliner, delayed by several months from a 2014 target date. But the public irritation that both Airbus and Boeing are showing is remarkable in its lack of precedent.

Part of Zodiac’s problem can be traced to a monthlon strike resolved last September-October, after a summer of labor strife. Yet one month of a non-total strike cannot itself be entirely blamed for Zodiac’s delays, and the company will need to address its failings with its customers. Yet delaying aircraft delivery — and airline plans — is by no means a new event. Notably, American’s Boeing 777-300ER introduction was also delayed for similar reasons.

Previously, Virgin Atlantic’s 2012-era Airbus A330 business class seat was created by former subsidiary threesixty design, now part of Zodiac. The seat, marketed as the Upper Class Dream Suite to distinguish it from the 2003 era pod to which Virgin has now returned on its Boeing 787-9 fleet, was so late to market that Virgin ended up wetleasing out two of its first A330s to Taipei-based China Airlines, in a telltale configuration where a supplementary economy cabin sat in zone 1 in place of Upper Class, followed by the premium economy cabin in its standard Virgin Atlantic location, and then economy down the back. Virgin outfitted other A330s as leisure market aircraft for its London Gatwick/Manchester/Glasgow subfleet without Upper Class, leaving premium economy as the top option on these planes.

virgin-atlantic-upper-class-dream-suite-copy

The wider industry capacity problem that continues today is one of a consolidating seatmaker base giving airframers fewer brand options. Zodiac, for example, acquired Weber and Sicma in addition to Virgin’s threesixty. The capacity issue is compounded by a longstanding shortage of aircraft interior engineers, a demand hump, capacity planning that appears to be on the “lag” not “lead” model, and the “big steps” problem of increasing production. The impact of Japanese seatmaker Koito’s admission in 2010 that it falsified certification data on seats aboard 32 airlines also contributed to a bottleneck of supply that has still not been resolved.

It’s also about the airframers themselves increasing risk by insisting on restrictive pre-selected catalogue options for seats. Very few airlines have the expertise, scale or capacity to do a Lufthansa and say “We could take aircraft bare and not use their seats,” as Runway Girl Network reported in 2013.

Many airlines, too, want custom seats, which they will often customise to their own specifications for branding or intellectual property reasons. As American Airlines, Virgin Atlantic and others discovered, this is often not a recipe for on-time delivery. Diversity of suppliers, a tack which Etihad is taking for its new Business Studio seats onboard the 787 and A380, is a way to mitigate risk and not put all an airline’s business class eggs in one fully flat basket.

American-Airlines-Boeing787-dotcom-business-gallery-1-AA

At the end of the day, the four big seatmakers — alphabetically, Airbus’ Stelia (formerly Sogerma) subsidiary, B/E Aerospace, Recaro and Zodiac — are in an oligopolist position with the two widebody airframers Airbus and Boeing, which are themselves oligopsonists for the seatmakers. Despite notable ongoing growth in premium cabin seating at Thompson and ZIM, as well as some advances in LCC style slimlines from Acro, it would seem that there are too few seatmakers to deliver what airlines want, when they want it.

In related news, Boeing has been forced to park a few of the new 787s destined for American in the desert due to a lack of seats.

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John Walton

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