How would you like to emerge from a 12-hour overnight business jet flight to the other side of the world with everyone on board totally refreshed? One key, according to Christopher Mbanefo of Yasava, is a remarkable space-science-inspired seat that reclines to your ideal sleeping position. By Rick Adams
From the moment he started to talk, I liked Christopher Mbanefo. The CEO and founder of Swiss business aircraft interiors specialist Yasava, impressed me as both passionate and authentic, a combination of qualities which seems all too rare. We met in Montreux, site of the famous jazz festival, where the YASAVA Creative Center is located overlooking Lac Leman with the Alps in the background, and what I expected to be a brief, somewhat mundane discussion about aircraft seats turned into a compelling three-hour conversation about a new way of looking at the corporate jet experience.
Mbanefo has the habit, perhaps unnerving to some, of asking, “Why are things the way they are?” As a student pilot, when he inquired about the positioning rationale for the avionics and controls, his instructor told him to ask the mechanic. Who told him to ask the aircraft designer. So he became an aerospace engineer and ended up leading the certification flight test programme for the Pilatus PC-9 single-engine turboprop, which won the U.S. Air Force Joint Primary Aircrew Training System in the mid-90s with partner Beechcraft. Later he sold Bombardier aircraft in Nigeria, taking the Canadian OEM’s market share from zero to 70%.
During a decade of demo flights, Mbanefo said he heard a lot of feedback from aircraft users. Some of that feedback was that the typical interior layout of all large-cabin aircraft is virtually the same, regardless of manufacturer. Even the conference table positioning is identical – always on the left. “It’s totally a cookie-cutter approach,” Mbanefo stated. “The configuration hasn’t changed from the G2 of the 1960s to the ultra-long-range aircraft of today.”
What has changed, he explained, is the duration of flights. Twenty years ago, the maximum range was about eight hours. Today it’s up to 13 or 14 hours non-stop for some business aircraft. “The human body is not designed for that. The aircraft are exceeding the capability of the human body.”
What’s the value of getting from Tokyo to New York more quickly if the non-stop flight leaves everyone physically and mentally miserable? “A night flight is a horrible experience. It’s basically glorified camping.”
So for passengers in high-end, long-range business jets such as the Bombardier Globals, Dassault Falcon 7X, and Gulfstream G650, Mbanefo focused on creating a cabin interior concept that could be customised to the lifestyle the user is accustomed to on the ground.
Making Waves at EBACE
Last May, at the European Business Aviation Convention & Exposition (EBACE) show in Geneva, Yasava unveiled the Aïana Wave seat as a key element of their Astral interior design. The Aïana Wave, Mbanefo told me, is derived from considerable aero-medical research by NASA, recently declassified, regarding the body positions of astronauts aboard the weightless Skylab. When a person is in their “neutral body position” (NBP), the vertical distance between the brain and the heart is minimized, your muscles can become totally relaxed, and the heart subsequently doesn’t have to work as hard.
So-called ‘lie-flat’ seats don’t provide the desired NBP. Mbanefo described them as “a sheet of metal with foam, covered with expensive leather. You tell yourself they’re comfortable because you’re paying a lot of money for them.”
“Body comfort is determined by the proximity of the center of body mass to the spinal cord. A good body support system must allow for changes in body positions,” Mbanefo said. “Multiple body positions also allow for better circulation, improved breathing, and a reduction of the dangers of deep vein thrombosis.” In the Aïana Wave, a person can lie on their side as well as their back and still maintain the straight spine position associated with optimal comfort.
The avant-garde design of the Aïana Wave seat is less about aesthetics and more about “functional luxury.” Developed in collaboration with a Yasava partner in Italy, the seat relies on gravity, carbon fiber and titanium materials, and a system of patent-pending “smart mechanics” in the tradition of Swiss clocks to adjust to an individual’s NBP. The unusual name, aïana, is from two quite similar-sounding and similar-meaning phrases in two languages which evolved an ocean apart – in the Ki-swahili of the African Great Lakes region, interpreted as “beautiful flower,” and as “forever blooming” to the native American Iroquois in the Adirondack Mountain area of upstate New York.
The upshot of the Aïana Wave “human support structure” is that everyone on a long-endurance business aircraft can enjoy an optimally reclined “Z-bed” position for sleep.
Interior Design by Hierarchy
Yasava’s quest for a superior seat was necessitated by their modular Astral approach to cabin interiors, which is predicated on a zen-sounding but very pragmatic concept called “social cultural intelligence.” It’s simply a matter of lifestyle requirements translated into the dynamics of a small number of people confined together in a small metal tube for several hours.
If the usual group of aircraft passengers are all more or less equal in the social hierarchy – for example, the board of directors of a company – the seating/conference/sleeping layout can reflect that equanimity.
However, if there is a “vertical hierarchy” with a clear top dog, the aircraft calls for a layout which caters to the distinct pecking order. An executive who is not used to interacting with personnel all day (private office elevator, chauffeured limousine, flanked by security) might be quite uncomfortable spending long hours in the same cabin as his staff. His wife or mistress may be intimidated sitting opposite a bodyguard, who is afraid to take off his sunglasses and make eye contact. “The executive ends up retreating to the smallest, noisiest part of the aircraft, leaving the main cabin to staff,” described Mbanefo.
An Astral design for such an executive might feature a private “VVIP lounge” with double Aïana Wave seats that convert into a double bed and a lavatory with shower. The Aïana Wave seats in the main “VIP cabin” would all also convert to NBP single beds. And for staff there’d be a row or two of reclinable Quadra seats in the forward section of the aircraft.
Mbanefo said to start the process of developing a custom business aircraft interior, he asks two questions: “How many guests?” and “How many staff?” The answers to those two questions drive the basic configuration.
“Luxury is an item, a service, or an activity that is uniquely tailored to my requirements and my lifestyle, whatever that is. The ideal is to design the interior for the user’s lifestyle, then wrap the aircraft shell around it.”
Yasava’s customer design centre is in Lausanne, Switzerland, and they’re exploring possible additional locations in China and North America. Mbanefo can also bring the design visualization tools to the customer’s site. To execute an Astral design, they leverage “selected completion centres” in North America and Europe. “We’re trying to make the process as simple as possible,” Mbanefo said.
The company name, Yasava, comes from an African myth story which is similar to the Phoenix, the bird re-born from the ashes, according to parallel legends in Egyptian, Persian, Oriental, Greek, and other cultures. In this context, it would seem, the ashes are conventional seating technology and the colorful bird is the “flight couture” of aircraft interiors and seating designed to regenerate the spirit of the high-end bizjet passenger.