June 28, 2007
Tinkerer reinvents airplane passenger seats to prevent clots
Working out of his garage in Orange County, the self-taught Jonas has invented and patented an ergonomic plane seat that has won praise from medical specialists concerned about the danger of leg blood clots during long flights by immobile passengers.
Jonas became unhappily familiar with conventional plane seats during monthly business trips between California and Israel in the 1980s and '90s. Rather than just kvetch, for Jonas' discomfort became the mother of invention.
As he began to study the matter, Jonas learned that he had stumbled onto major health problems, known as deep vein thrombosis (DVT) and pulmonary embolism (PE).
In both conditions, long immobility causes blood to clot in one of the deep veins near the center of the leg and may eventually block the flow of blood to the heart and lungs.
In the United States, up to 200,000 people die each year from complications of DVT and PE, according to the American Public Health Association, almost twice as many deaths as from AIDS, breast cancer and highway accidents combined. And a New Zealand study found that up to one in every 100 long-distance fliers could develop blood clots.
The condition is informally known, for obvious reasons, as the "economy-class syndrome," but upscale passengers are not immune.
Vice President Dick Cheney, flying in the luxurious comfort of Air Force Two, had to be treated for DVT during a 25,000-mile tour of Asia last March.
For Jonas, it got to the point that "even thinking about taking a flight gave me a pain." He tried putting cushions or wooden slats under his thighs and knees, but nothing helped.
A lesser man, especially one with only a high school education and no engineering background, might have grumbled and then gotten on with his life, but not Jonas.
"I have always had an entrepreneurial spirit," said the 62-year old native of Hadera, about halfway between Tel Aviv and Haifa, and a veteran of the Six-Day and Yom Kippur wars.
Without any journalistic experience, Jonas said he rose from ad salesman to owner of three successful small-town weeklies. In 1986, Jonas sold his newspapers, though he retained an advisory position, and moved to the United States. He and his wife live in Laguna Woods.
In the early '90s, Jonas started to think about constructing a better plane seat. He studied DVT in medical books and went to Home Depot to buy some basic tools and material.
Next, he bought two standard coach seats from KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and began modifying them. The Dutch also provided computer modeling of the seats, and by 2001 Jonas had completed two demonstration models, which he named NewSit1 and NewSit2.
They look like regular plane seats, but consist of two sections. At the push of a button, the front section of the seat rises, lifting the passenger's legs slightly off the ground, allowing them to dangle or move back and forth in a rocking chair motion.
Both the swinging motion itself and the pressure of the calf muscle on the seat cushion on the downswing increase circulation. As a bonus, Jonas said, the seat makes for more comfortable sitting and sleeping positions.
NewSit received an encouraging scientific imprimatur recently in a study by Dr. Harry Abramowitz and professor David Gertz of the vascular surgery unit at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem.
In a paper published in the Annals of Vascular Surgery, the two scientists reported on tests by 25 volunteers.
"After sitting in the conventional (airline) seat, volunteers saw the venous volume of their legs swell by about 26 percent, while after sitting in the modified [Jonas] chair, swelling increased by just 3 percent. This means that the blood circulation was close to normal [in the Jonas seat]," the study reported.
Jonas has spent "a few hundred thousand dollars" on his research ("My wife thinks I'm meshuggeh," he acknowledged) and is now looking for investments of some $30 million to put NewSit into production.
Once manufactured in quantity, Jonas calculates, NewSit would raise the current $2,500 cost of a regular coach seat by $600.
So far, airlines have not been beating a path to the inventor's door. Jonas blames this on the inertia of a civilian aviation industry averse to any changes in the established design.
He also points to legal implications. Passengers have been filing lawsuits against carriers for flight-induced DVT, and switching to NewSit might be taken as an implicit admission that standard seats caused or aggravated the problem.
On an encouraging note, a couple of weeks ago Jonas signed an agreement for marketing his chair with YISSUM, the technology transfer arm of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Jonas is expanding his horizons. "I'm sure the NewSit concept can also benefit wheelchair users," he said, "or any other person forced to sit in the same position for hours on end."
For a graphic demonstration of the NewSit chair and further details, visit www.newsit.org.