Can Lie-Flat Seats Make Economy Class Flights Bearable?

Designs from Air New Zealand, Alejandro Núñez Vicente, and Jeffrey O’Neill could usher in a new era of comfort in economy class seats.

Air New Zealand's SkyNests: bunk beds that will be available for economy class passengers to book during flights in 2024. Credit: Air New Zealand

Earlier this week, Air New Zealand unveiled new lie-flat seating— traditionally an amenity offered to premium cabin travelers—that will be available to economy class passengers on its long-haul flights starting in 2024. The announcement, along with the recent spate of flight cancellations and delays, is reigniting discussion about what it will take to finally bring a modicum of comfort to the most accessible seats on the plane. While Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is urging airlines to finally get a handle on their logistics, designers have lately been rolling out a number of proposals with the ambition of bringing the horizontal dream to life for more passengers.

It’s no secret that as far as air travel goes, “economy class” and “amenities” are something of an oxymoron. Slate’s Dan Kois put it aptly, lamenting how “the trend in air travel, for all but the wealthiest passengers, is to cram as many of us as possible into ever-smaller square footage while reducing perks and increasing prices.”

Kois was commenting on a new double-decker seating prototype revealed at the 2022 Hamburg Aircraft Interiors Expo that’s being billed as the future of affordable flying. If the words “double decker” conjure images of the Airbus A380—the world’s largest passenger aircraft favored by swanky airlines like Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines, and Qatar—think again. Though the A380 is making an unexpected return to the skies, 22-year-old Alejandro Núñez Vicente’s chaise lounge proposal for economy seating is anything but plush.

Alejandro Núñez Vicente's chaise lounge economy seating design, that will allow some passengers to stretch their legs while seated. Credit: Crystal Cabin Awards

The design grants passengers seated on the lower level the coveted business class perk of elevating and fully extending their legs. The concept is informed by Núñez Vicente’s research on how passengers perceive spaciousness in economy class seats. While his invention has reportedly caught the attention of investors, manufacturers, and major airlines—signifying a major milestone for the accomplished young designer who went on leave from his master’s program to focus on the prototype full time—the internet lost its collective mind (“let you eat farts for free,” “fresh hell just dropped”). As far as double-decker proposals go, Jeffrey O’Neill’s stacked Zephyr Seat seems much more pleasant.

Are Air New Zealand’s SkyNests the holy grail? The bunk bed–style pods, which seem partially inspired by the designs of long-haul crew cabins, will come equipped with real mattresses, bedding, and cooling pillows. There are a few catches: The beds are only available in four-hour increments, and for a fee. Considering a typical sleep cycle lasts for 90 minutes, this will allow passengers to wind down before their deluxe nap.

Jeffrey O'Neill’s stacked Zephr seat. Credit: Zephyr Aerospace

“It’s been 170,000 hours of design, constant evolutions of small and large design developments, tweaks, and engineering feats to get to where we are,” says Air New Zealand’s chief customer and sales officer, Leanne Geraghty, of the SkyNests. “[Customers] weren’t shy to tell us what the pain points were, what worked well, and where we could improve.” If basic economy is anything to go off of, the opportunities for improvement are plentiful.

Paying a fee to lie down on a flight is an interesting idea that we feel like we’ve seen somewhere before. Oh, right. It’s called first class.

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