Delta didn't explain its decision to replace the old padded blue seats with the new model.
A spokeswoman noted that the new seats have armrests and better access to power outlets but, in an e-mailed statement, did not address the type of material or comfort.
Martin Sharp, regional director for seat-maker Zoeftig, said the polyurethane in the new seat is an injection-molded firm foam with a “slight flexibility” that makes it ergonomic, particularly “when someone sits for 10 minutes and their body heat heats it.”
That’s cold comfort to Smither, who wrote in a tweet that “Delta has the most uncomfortable seats at the Atlanta airport,” adding that the airline “should make the senior management use them for desk chairs.”
Traveler Doug Williams calls them “the worst chairs on the east coast.” And Delta traveler Cindy Beresh-Bryant simply tweeted that the seats “terrible - hard, cold and uncomfortable!”
Sharp said some travelers may be influenced by their sense of “perceived comfort,” or how comfortable a seat appears before you sit in it.
“They see the very, very old 1970s-type seating that had very thick padding and big chunks of foam, and think that’s going to be comfortable. And then they see the new style of seating that’s slim… and they kind of make their mind up before they sit in it that it’s not going to be comfortable,” Sharp said.
“Whether it’s a valid point or not, I’m not so sure.”
He offered the example of Herman Miller mesh office chairs that may not appear to be comfortable but are best-sellers.
Sharp also said “there’s a tradeoff, unfortunately,” between comfort and durability.
“While you may have a fraction more comfort from something that is very padded, with a big chunky foam, within six months there will be tears and rips within it because of how soft it is, and that’s a very bad reflection on the airport and the airline. It’s a fine balance,” he said.
Iana Tassada, aviation group vice president at JE Dunn Construction, which is handling the gate renovations for Delta, said the purpose of the gate area is to handle passengers just before boarding.
“I think there’s a lot of focus on the passenger experience and getting passengers out to a lot of the concessions,” Tassada said.
She said “there’s been a lot of effort” on improving concessions and art in the airport, “so people are enjoying the airport and spending less time in the hold room.”
The new seats do come with some improvements. The old seats lacked armrests, while the new ones have double armrests.
Also, the power modules between the seats make USB and plug sockets available at every seat. USB is a universal type of power supply across the world, Sharp said.
And the double armrests reduce the number of unused, empty seats, according to Sharp. That’s because most people don’t want to sit next to a stranger, so they tend to leave an empty seat between themselves and others. Armrests increase the sense of personal space.
Armrests, however, also make it more difficult to sleep across seats. Zoeftig is in talks with Delta about benches that might accommodate families with small children and passengers who get delayed overnight, according to Sharp.
The new seats are modular, allowing the airline to configure them in different seating arrangements.
Delta recently launched a new boarding process at some gates at Hartsfield-Jackson for passengers, aimed in part at preventing spillover of boarding crowds into the concourse walkway.
The project to renovate 85 Delta gates at Hartsfield-Jackson is expected to run through October 2018.
Sharp said the Zoeftig seats, specially-designed for Delta, have also been installed at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport and LaGuardia Airport, and soon will be at Los Angeles International.
Old Delta seats at Hartsfield-Jackson gates