SANTA CLARA, Calif.—Airlines may consider investing in comfortable, budget-friendly seats for their economy travelers. The wow factor: People can lie down to sleep.
With talk about airlines operating at two-thirds or 50 percent capacity due to COVID-19, people may find their flights emptier than before. The empty seats may seem like a waste of space, but one company has decided to improve that situation.
A San Francisco-based startup has come up with the world’s first lie-flat airline seat for premium economy class travelers. The unit can be stacked like a double-decker, with one person sitting above another. Since each seat is mostly enclosed, people can have their own personal space and not worry too much about social distancing.
Jeffrey O’Neill, CEO of Zephyr Aerospace, said the inspiration to recreate a premium seat came during a long and sleepless flight. He thought the seats should be more comfortable while being affordable, so he came up with the double-decker concept.
“You block the middle seat in economy class, you’re losing 35 percent of your revenue on that flight. … It means the airfare is going to increase over time,” O’Neill told The Epoch Times. “People want to be safe, but if they just can’t afford it, then they are not going to fly.”
“The airlines are not making enough money to support that flight every single day. So when they do fly it, they have to increase the prices,” he explained. “They’ve got to monetize either quickly or they have to do it by actually selling more tickets, or they’ll have to do it by increasing the fares. So either one of those, from a marketing standpoint, are not going to be appealing to a traveler in the middle of a recession, also pandemic.”
His company’s product is for travelers who want to pay extra for a better experience without jumping to business class.
“We realize that the ability to sleep or lie flat, and to have personal space and privacy, those are the two most important things to a traveler who is flying a very long distance,” O’Neill said.
It would mean changing the layout of the existing premium class seats, but not the density and space. If the original arrangements are four rows with eight premium seats in a 2-4-2 configuration, the new layout will be 1-2-1 with two levels.
The unit will look like a bunk bed, with a pull-out ladder to access the top bunk.
When people want to lie down, they can pull down the cushion in front of them.
“When you enter a seat, you and your feet are in an upright position. We don’t need to use that space when we’re lying flat. So we decided to cover it with a mattress top pad. And that would enable you to have more personal real estate, more seat. You’re not forced to lie in a particular position,” said O’Neill.
He said the extra space can fit a small baby or a service pet while you are sleeping.
Instead of individual doors, the company is thinking of adding a sound-proof blackout curtain that covers the entry point of the seat.
The bunk will not affect the overhead luggage compartment, and there will be additional space inside the seat itself.
Each seating unit is expected to weigh 70 pounds. The seat is not mechanical or electrical, so it helps keep the weight low.
“There’s no heavy metallic pulleys, levers, or anything that can break. So the direct maintenance cost for an airline is essentially 90 percent less than it would be to maintain a business class seat,” said O’Neill.
It is meant to be economical and cost effective for both passengers and airlines.
A normal premium seat would cost somewhere between $1,000 and $2,000 for a round-trip flight from San Francisco to Hong Kong. According to O’Neill, their seats are expected to cost about $1,000 each way.
“We think the value of this product is best on flights over 10 hours,” he said.
This would include flights from California to Europe, Asia, and potentially Australia. He sees the demand for it since it is affordable and people want to sleep on the long flights.
On the airline side, the seat is expected to cost less than the business class seats with similar comfort features. He gave a price comparison example. A single business class seat can cost the airline between $50,000 and $75,000. His company’s seats would cost between $15,000 and $30,000 each, depending on the features the airline wants. Normal economy and premium-economy seats cost anywhere between $3,000 and $15,000.
The product is not fully finalized yet. They are working with engineers on how it will be built and what materials it will use, in consideration of its weight and safety factors.
According to O’Neill, they showed a mockup of the seats to 27 different airlines and had followup meetings with about half of them.
He said they had advanced conversations with two airlines last year, but it slowed down this year due to the pandemic.
In the future they will consider creating seats for other forms of long-distance transportation like Amtrak and Greyhound.