Here's the pitch: Lie-flat seats in premium economy

A rendering of Zephyr's premium-economy sleeper seats, which will be stacked like bunk beds.
A rendering of Zephyr's premium-economy sleeper seats, which will be stacked like bunk beds. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Zephyr

A San Francisco-based startup is vying to revolutionize widebody, premium economy cabins.

Zephyr, the vision of inveterate traveler Jeff O'Neill, has developed a prototype premium-economy sleeper seat that offers in excess of six feet of lie-flat length. More than that, he and co-designer Matthew Cleary say they can fit the seats into the same footprint as existing premium-economy seat designs, a key business consideration for airlines.

"If sleep could be made more financially accessible or affordable to all types of travelers, there would be demand on long-distance flights," O'Neill said. "There is just so much demand from travelers, quite frankly, who just want to sleep."

Airlines had increasingly added premium-economy cabins, which bridge the gap between business class and economy class, to their fleets in the decade that preceded the Covid-19 pandemic. U.S. carriers American, Delta and United, for example, have each introduced premium economy since 2016. 

The cabin class has been a financial winner for airlines, which generally have reported being able to sell the seats for approximately twice the price of economy even though they take up only marginally more aircraft real estate. For instance, on an Airbus A350, Delta offers 38 inches of space between rows in premium economy, compared with 31 inches or 32 inches of space in economy. The Delta Premium Select seats are also just half an inch wider than their economy counterparts.

However, O'Neill said he believes such enhancements don't deliver the sleep that long-haul travelers want most.

Zephyr plans to offer the first lie-flat premium economy seat.
Zephyr plans to offer the first lie-flat premium economy seat. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Zephyr

But how could airlines offer lie-flat service without taking up business-class-type space and charging business-class prices?

The solution O'Neill has developed is to stack sleeper pods bunk bed-style. The pods, which conceptually look otherwise like bare-bones versions of business-class pods, would also save space compared with business class by being in a fixed position, with no seat reclining. Instead, when passengers want to lie down, they would simply release a cushioned bridge from the seat base that would cover the area they use for legroom while seated upright. The flyer would then lie diagonally from the seat, across the bridge, to a connected area where the legs would go.

Upper-bunk flyers would get to their seats via a ladder that otherwise would be stowed inside a seat compartment.

O'Neill said flyers up to about 6 feet, 4 inches could comfortably sit on the bottom seat, while the top would offer additional space for especially tall people. 

To date, no airline has contracted for the Zephyr seat, though O'Neill said the company was in conversations with several carriers prior to the pandemic, which brought those talks to a pause. 

Seth Miller, editor of the airline passenger experience-focused website PaxEx.Aero, said that the Zephyr seat, while innovative, won't be easy to sell.

"It's an interesting concept, but like all seat concepts, it's got a serious uphill battle," Miller said. "The challenge will be convincing either an airline or a manufacturer that passengers will go out of their way to fly it."

Miller did note that airlines are more likely to look at premium-economy innovations these days than innovations in other cabins due to the high yields premium economy bring in. But he said Zephyr could have difficulty getting the stackable seat concept certified. The FAA, he said, will want to see that the person getting out from the top won't impede the person below in the case of an evacuation. 

Cleary, though, pointed out that under the seat configuration envisioned by Zephyr, everyone would have direct aisle access. He said that for evacuation purposes that would be an improvement over existing airline economy and premium-economy configurations. 


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