Many years ago, most airlines flying long international routes offered a product in three classes with bus, business and first class. In the 1990s, business class was improved and began to replace first class completely for some airlines, and not long after airlines also introduced premium economy. A few airlines today actually still use these four classes (coach, premium coach, business and first), but several airlines have removed first class and invested in lie-flat business class instead. A new product is under development today that promises to bring this “lying flat” concept further back in the cabin, albeit with a twist double-decker seat. The designers call this “a bed of compromises” and as a replacement for premium economy it makes a lot of sense and would be a definite upgrade for the travelers.
This game-changing seat, called the Zephyr, is not without challenges as it is not yet certified by the FAA or any other world security organization. It also “fits” in various ways on the current popular wide-body aircraft and does not fit at all on long-range narrow bodies like the Airbus A321-LR. It is also more expensive than two normal premium economy seats. And yet, its innovative use of space and the ability for customers to both sit up and lie flat in a premium economy configuration make it worth considering, as this product can even be a way to seal some existing airline business class cabins.
How this happened
Jeffery O’Neill, the brainchild behind Zephyren, has been a frequent traveler and one who was constantly looking for ways to buy an economy ticket, but was upgraded to business class. He noted that many at the top levels of an airline’s frequent flyer program, like him, felt “eligible” to receive such an upgrade. He challenged himself to think of a design that could offer a sleeping experience at the cost of the economy, and after many years of industrial design and some creativity came the idea of Zephyr. When airlines really started promoting premium economy, the seat was when the seat became realistic, as the premium economy seats have enough space (the distance between a seat and the seat in front of it) to make the Zephyr fit without losing the seat density. To make his dream come true, Jeffrey O’Neill partnered with Matt Cleary, Director of Industrial Design at ACLA Studio. Cleary has a background in aircraft interior design. Together, they designed and patented the Zephyr Seat in March 2018.
Seats can be won or lost
Depending on where these seats are installed, seats may win or lose. The company claims that the current seat design occupies the same physical footprint as premium economy seats on most wide-body aircraft. For example, on an Airbus A350 or Boeing B777, double-decker Zephyr seats could be placed in a 2-4-2 configuration, and they would accommodate two rows of premium economy per. Seat, but also use the space above for the second seat. Thus, the number of seats remains the same. On a Boeing 787, O’Neill states that the seating capacity can be increased by 14% in the premium economy cabin. As the chief designer behind the Zephyr seat, Cleary says, “the configuration and design we have been working on will allow us to offer a bed in an aircraft with a density comparable to Premium Economy (PYC), thereby promoting a more egalitarian future for air travel that merges two previously separate travel experiences. ”
If these seats are used to replace standard economy, some tightness will be lost as there is not enough space in the economy cabins to create a 1-1 replacement. However, if these seats are used to replace some or all of an existing business class cabin, the density can actually be increased while still offering a reclining bed to customers who see it as the primary value of the business class.
Since the Zephyr seat uses the space where the overhead bins are usually, it must be attached to the body of the aircraft in places other seats do not. This requires a certification for each phase of the flight, which means taxi, takeoff and landings. In addition, regulators need to be sure that passengers can evacuate in an emergency and that those in the upper berths will not be stranded. Tests will also be needed to prove that passengers can evacuate from a supine position in both the lower and upper seats, not just the seating position. Obtaining this certification will require time to prove the concepts and make necessary changes while keeping the core ideas intact.
The team behind the Zephyr seat feels confident in the ultimate certification and that it has developed a product that has the potential to change the future of air travel. With many years of experience working with major airlines around the world, Matt Cleary states: “I have 10 years of experience as an industrial designer specializing in interior cabin design and cabin configuration and have designed and helped patent many different airlines and seat configurations. The Zephyr seat does not come without its challenges, as is the case with any new product in our industry. However, we remain committed to considering certification and engineering requirements at all stages of our development. I’m happy to say that I can finally see a clearer path to certification with the latest design. ”
Why the idea probably flies
Aircraft cabins are cramped, and airlines have learned that adding seats allows for lower fares and more overall revenue. For the most part, this has included continuous shrinkage of the economy cabin seats, use of seats with thinner backs and limited or no reclining, while maintaining a lying-flat sleeping option for those willing to pay or be upgraded to business class on long flights. This new seating concept, which uses space that was not previously considered for passengers, is radical in some ways, but also very logical. It allows for a dense, lie-flat solution where the passenger can also still sit up to eat, read, use WiFi or watch a movie. It promises to be highly disruptive in the flat arena, making this limited benefit more common for those who pay a premium at an economical price. Cleary says: ” In many respects, the Zephyr Seat is the first of its kind. From a traveler’s perspective, the seat offers what we all want from our long-distance driving experience — the ability to stretch out and sleep in a private space without paying extra for business or first-class. ” Airlines that do not adopt this may find that they have competition for some business class customers who like this cheaper solution and are willing to give up the full Business class experience.
No airlines have committed to this yet, but I expect this to change as soon as the road to certification is safer. Thus, it is probably three to five years before passengers will see this on commercial aircraft. Once realized, the Zephyr seat has great potential to set a new standard for the future of premium economy-class air travel. Meanwhile, those who buy premium economy will continue to sweat at the gate, waiting for their name to be called for one of the few business-class upgrades available.