INTERVIEW: Acro CEO Sees Flexibility As Key To Post-COVID Seat Designs

Credit: Acro Aircraft Seating

Acro Aircraft Seating CEO Neil Cairns joined the company March 9, just as the world was bracing for the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the face of a rapidly changing industry, Acro is working to identify cost-effective and sustainable changes to seating design and development.

You became Acro CEO in March, at the height of the COVID-19 crisis. How have you managed the crisis on a company level?

I am new to the company but certainly not to the sector so, when I arrived at Acro, I was able to hit the ground running. I found myself working with proactive, highly professional management and engineering teams and with a super, highly motivated workforce, all of which made for a seamless transition. My move came in testing times but, as I remind myself these days, “a smooth sea never made a good sailor.”

Aviation is invariably at the sharp end of downturns so, as a sector, we have learned to “expect the unexpected.” In common with other leading players, Acro has embedded contingency and resilience planning across its business operation, although few would have predicted the global impact of the current COVID-19 pandemic.

That strategic planning is now supporting our business continuity. Plus, the company is well-managed—flexible, agile and creative. We benefit from having a parent company, which is able and prepared not only to support us through the current trough, but also to resource further investment in innovation—backing which encourages us to be daring, and to take the bold, creative measures needed to make meaningful post-COVID change.

What is the company doing to address the challenges?

Forward planning has never been more difficult, or more important. The industry isn’t going to look like it did pre-crisis for a very long time, if ever. In terms of growth strategy therefore, it’s “back to the drawing board.”

We must identify and capitalize on future opportunities and we are utilizing our business agility and creativity to prepare for recovery in the short term and growth in the long term. We are currently reinforcing client relationships, exploring ways in which we can help customers to shape some of the changes, which will define airline travel for the foreseeable future, giving the reassurance of meaningful improvements to the onboard environment.

Has Acro been inspired to create new cabin interior product lines, or redesign existing product or services as a result of the pandemic? How is it driving innovation?

We recognize we have an important part to play to ensure the health and wellbeing of passengers and cabin crews. We also have a responsibility to support our airline customers at a time when they face massive loss of revenue.

In addition to bringing lower cost options to the table, we are working closely with customers to identify cost-effective and sustainable changes to seating design and development. Some of those bespoke solutions will take time to develop and certify, but several options are already at prototype and testing stage while we are confident that others will deliver quick wins. 

Changes to configurations, adaptions to center seats and dividing shields are all being actively explored. Less obviously, we are working on adaptations that will make deep cleaning easier and more effective. Flexibility is key and there will be no “one size fits all.”

In partnership with key suppliers, we are ramping up work already at an advanced stage on anti-microbial technology that can be applied to the main passenger touchpoints such as seat covers, meal trays, armcaps and other plastic parts. We believe this is one of the most effective ways to safeguard against harmful bacteria and pathogens in the cabin.

The established Acro strapline “discover freedom to move” characterizes our longstanding commitment to providing comfort and a feeling of space, particularly within higher density economy class cabins. At a time when passengers want to see and experience improved social distancing, our innovative designs are ideally suited to helping restore passenger confidence.

Linda Blachly

Linda Blachly is Senior Associate Editor for Air Transport World and Aviation Week. She joined the company in July 2010 and is responsible for producing features for Air Transport World’s monthly magazine and engaging content for the She is based in the Washington DC office.