Douglas Friedli travels to Cwmbran to meet the men who run luxury aircraft seat maker Contour Aerospace on the eve of its takeover

alt“This is the question I ask taxi drivers,” says Ian Plummer with a playful smile. “How much do you think a first class airline seat costs?” He has the good grace not to laugh at my answer, before giving the real one: “Between £120,000 and £150,000. Each.”

Here in Cwmbran, where Plummer is joint managing director of Contour Aerospace, you could get a three-bedroom house for the price of one seat. But the house might not be quite so comfortable. The company, which employs 874 staff in Wales, is the third-biggest maker of first and business class seats in the world. And it’s growing fast: turnover is likely to have been £156m for 2011, up 30 per cent on 2010. “There’s been a big increase in passenger miles travelled, says Plummer. “This business tends to be a bit recession-proof.”

It’s a tasty business, as aircraft interiors company Zodiac Aerospace showed in December when it reached an agreement to acquire Contour. Perhaps Contour’s most impressive claim is that it is number one in the luxury airline seat market in China. There can’t many Welsh businesses that could make a similar claim. Success in China stemmed from years of working with local airlines. Fellow managing director Paul Strothers says: “We did all the right things years ago. Since then, we’ve been on an incredible growth curve.”

The global market has been helped by wide-bodied jets such as the Airbus A380 and Boeing 787, which are lighter and more fuel efficient. And Contour is taking a bigger share of the market. Its customers include Delta Airlines, Air New Zealand, Lufthansa, Swiss Airlines, Cathay Pacific and Air China.

If you haven’t sat in one of its seats, you might have seen them in the Turkish Airlines advert featuring members of the Manchester United team. Plummer gets a dreamy look in his eyes as he talks about the factory’s output: “We produce beautiful seats. I am becoming a bit of an anorak about them.”

The seats fold into beds and feature the latest electronic gadgets. But why should each one cost the same as Bentley? At the top end, airlines compete on comfort, and they commission luxury seats to distinguish themselves from rivals. “The passenger experience is heavily influenced by the experience of the seat,” Plummer says. “The seats are such an important decision, they could be chosen by the president of the airline – or in some cases his wife.”

The latest equipment will be shown to a group of potential customers at the Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg in March. Strothers predicts future upgrades will include wi-fi replacing copper wiring in seats, and more up-to-date TV sets. Meanwhile, airlines want more bespoke, distinctive seats of their own.

Contour is spread across two neighbouring sites at Llantarnam in Cwmbran. Workers in one building make parts, while the seats are put together in a unit up the hill. The company makes other aircraft furnishings such as bars at a site in Camberley in Surrey. It’s unusual in that so much of the selling, design and manufacturing is done in-house, although some high volume components are bought in. “It’s hellishly complex,” says Strothers. “We start with a blank sheet of paper and then take it right through to the end.” The process includes one creative guru, whose role, says Plummer, is to “think the unthinkable.”




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