Shortage of fancy seats slows Boeing’s year-end jet deliveries
Airplane seat suppliers are scrambling to keep up with demand, delaying some jet deliveries from Boeing, as international carriers turn to new lie-flat premium seating that is more complicated to build and get FAA-approved.
Seattle Times aerospace reporter
Aircraft-seat suppliers are struggling to meet the demand for new high-end, lie-flat seats for business and first class in big widebody jets, and the supply-chain squeeze has begun to slow Boeing jet deliveries.
The shortage of premium seats and new Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification requirements for seats are prime reasons American Airlines on Wednesday pushed out delivery of two Boeing 787 Dreamliners from this month into sometime in “the first quarter” of next year.
“This is not something specific to American,” said airline spokesman Matt Miller. “It’s an issue the entire industry is facing.”
American’s 787 business-class seats are made by French supplier Zodiac. Florida-based B/E Aerospace is the other leading manufacturer, supplying, for example, the business-class seats in United Airlines’ 787s.
Boeing insists that, despite American’s deferral, it will still meet its 2014 target of 110 Dreamliner deliveries by year end. To do so, it will have to deliver seven more 787s.
“Our delivery guidance for the year has not changed,” said Boeing spokesman Doug Alder.
“Zodiac and other suppliers are having a hard time meeting demand,” said Ken Herbert, an industry analyst with investment bank Canaccord Genuity. “I think Boeing will find a way to make that number, but I’m sure it’s having an impact on other aircraft and other airlines.”
The soaring production rate for large jets that fly internationally has created heavy demand for new premium seats. Higher levels of airline-seat customization add to the pressure.
This year through November, Boeing had delivered a record 207 widebody jets. Boeing delivered only 133 widebodies in all of 2013.
“We’re working on several fronts to increase seat-production capacity,” said Alder.
Airbus is facing the same pressures. Spokeswoman Mary Anne Greczyn said maintaining the seat supply is “a daily challenge.”
So far, though, she said, “We are managing it and preventing it from affecting our delivery schedule.”
Another factor slowing seat delivery is the FAA’s new rules applying to seats such as business-class ones that don’t face forward to the seat immediately in front. Those passengers must be protected from head injury, using air bags or another safety measures.
This new requirement means that to get their work certified, seat makers have had to devise entirely new crash tests, using new “crash-test dummies” with flexible necks.
Analyst Herbert said many airlines are pushing to upgrade their premium-class cabins with fully customized seats that offer the latest in-flight connectivity technology and comfort, and all require separate FAA certification.
“On the 787, in particular, there is a bit of a certification crunch,” said Herbert.
Miller of American Airlines said its 787 business-class seats are “custom designed and custom built” for the 787.
Airline analyst Robert Mann said top-end modern seats, enclosed in plastic shells and sporting luxury finishes and lie-flat controls, cost from $120,000 to $200,000.
That’s partly because the cost of developing these designs has to be amortized over a relatively small number of seats. For comparison, he said, a typical coach seat costs about $7,000.
Zodiac manufactures the seats for American in Gainesville, Texas, just north of the airline’s headquarters. The company also has manufacturing plants for plane interiors in Marysville and Bellingham.
The Gainesville plant had a four-week strike in September, contributing to the seat shortage.
Even before that strike, Zodiac acknowledged to analysts that its interiors unit faced “operating difficulties ... due to an extremely high level” of demand.
In a Thursday conference call from Paris, Zodiac CEO Olivier Zarrouati told analysts that “Our engineering office was unable to cope with the workload, and so there were some delays in deliveries.”
However, he added, efforts to improve output “are already starting to bear fruit.”
Zarrouati said the next six months should see Zodiac’s seat-supply chain return to normal.
Miller said American has not yet scheduled a precise date for its initial 787 delivery.
Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or firstname.lastname@example.org