Aircraft seat sales take off for Co Armagh firm Thompson
Craigavon firm secures US contracts
A new aircraft seating system built in Northern Ireland is to be installed on planes being flown by one of America's most popular carriers.
The lie-flat seat, created by Craigavon company Thompson Aero Seating (TAS) for New York-based JetBlue Airways, will be available on transcontinental routes between New York to Los Angeles and New York to San Francisco next year.
The seats will be built into new Airbus A321 aircraft in April 2014.
JetBlue, which began life as a low-cost carrier, has been moving toward a more mainstream business model in recent years with a view to taking on rivals Delta, United and American.
As a result, JetBlue will also be the first and only airline to offer customers the option of a completely separate single suite seat that includes a closeable door for increased privacy.
Rows one, three and five of the new planes will offer 2-by-2 seating, and rows two and four will offer private suites, with one seat on each side of the aisle.
Brian Rogers (above), vice president of sales for TAS, which employs just under 90 people, said the company has accrued some big name clients in just two years of manufacturing operations.
The idea for the company was formed after founder James Thompson was trying to catch some sleep against the window in a particularly uncomfortable aircraft seat back in 2001. In February 2011, the company moved to a 25,000 sq ft facility at Seagoe Industrial Area in Portadown and began manufacturing its pat- ented technology of the Thompson Vantage business class seat for its first three customers
Last year, Thompson's secured another four customers and took possession of an extra 25,000 sq ft manufacturing facility at Gobin Street Portadown with a 33,000 sq ft extension planned to the original site at Seagoe.
Orders for the Vantage business class seat and the Cozy economy seats have now been made by BMI, now owned by British Airways, flag-carriers Brussels Airlines, Austrian Airlines, Air Canada and Air Astana of Kazakhstan, and Swiss charter firm Edelweiss Air as well as other undisclosed companies.
"JetBlue got in contact with us, came to visit, they liked the product and we did the deal," Mr Rogers said. "This type of seat is more commonly seen in a double-bodied aircraft so put these sorts of seats in a narrow-bodied aircraft is a new idea, for JetBlue it was an innovation challenge.
"We have developed the seats for fitting to the Airbus and they are scheduled to go into service in April next year. We're making just over 170 physical seats.
"We go to the industry shows... we have good contacts and that has enabled us to secure some high-profile clients. The airline industry is on the up, more airlines are looking for new planes... it is a very exciting and interesting time for the industry."
JetBlue chief executive Dave Barger unveiled the new seat at the Global Business Travel Association convention in San Diego.
The new seats also offer air cushions with adjustable firmness, a massage function, a 15-inch widescreen television and a 'wake-me-for-service' indicator if the customer chooses to sleep in.
"Transcontinental routes have had premium fares we believe we can beat," said Mr Barger. "By offering our own, unique seats and enriched service elements that will include some soon-to-be-announced partnerships, we are creating a one-of-a-kind experience that will serve this market in a way only JetBlue can."
The company said that there will be a dedicated sub-fleet of 11 aircraft initially used for the two core transcontinental routes. Additional markets have not been ruled out, based on customer response and demand for more service.