This double-decker airline seat is the stuff of budget travel dreams

Feb 26, 2020

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Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Zephyr is not affiliated with Hong Kong studio Paperclip Design. 

Traveling is delightful, but sometimes the experience itself is not — especially for coach cabin travelers. “Cattle class” and “sardine can” may be insulting nicknames for economy class, but they are indicative of the general public’s frustration with increasingly crowded cabins.

New: Lie-flat beds for economy could become a reality with Air New Zealand bunk bed-style pods

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In fact, cramped quarters can even contribute to the likelihood of developing blood clots from deep-vein thrombosis. Medical experts caution people to move about frequently when traveling. But when seat rows are as tightly situated as they often are these days, people may feel uncomfortable asking their fellow travelers for access to the aisle, leading to long hours stuck in a seat.

Enter Zephyr, a new wide-body aircraft seat prototype designed to eliminate most of the frustrations of coach class misery. The brainchild of a self-proclaimed “perennial traveler” who has visited 171 countries, these seats offer business-class privacy and comfort at premium economy prices.

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“We should not be having these ridiculous discussions about asking permission to recline a seat or get to the bathroom,” said Jeffrey O’Neill, who designed the Zephyr. Instead, O’Neill believes that customers deserve the right to decide how to utilize the small slice of sky real estate they paid for.

“Why are we even giving airlines the option to tell us how we can and cannot travel?” O’Neill told The Points Guy. “Privacy should be accessible and affordable, and [airlines] should improve their customers’ in-flight experience.”

When it comes to travel, O’Neill sees a lot of attention directed toward consumer experience — or lack thereof — by both customers and airlines alike. Yet he believes that the true foundation of mid-air comfort begins with a better, more memorable hard product: the plane seat itself, and everything surrounding it.

To that end, the Zephyr utilizes a double-decker design in a 1-2-1 configuration to offer aisle access for every single passenger while providing privacy for free. “You basically have your own space,” O’Neill told TPG. That’s a nearly unheard-of luxury in the premium economy space.

Each semi-private seat is staggered from its neighbors, providing as much privacy as possible within a few square feet. The efficient use of space accommodates the same number of premium economy seats as today’s cabins, ensuring that a carrier’s bottom line will not impacted in favor of consumer comfort.

The seat itself stays in a slight, fixed recline and doesn’t include any moving parts, relying instead on zero-gravity design to keep travelers comfortable while seated upright.

Image courtesy of Zephyr
(Image courtesy of Zephyr)

A cubby situated at eye level keeps personal items close at hand during the flight, and a built-in ladder slides out to let upper-deck passengers into their seats, retracting into a recessed nook when not in use.

Large in-flight entertainment screens, a spacious tray/desk/armrest for electronics charging at the built-in outlet plugs, and recessed LED lights round out the Zephyr hard product, at least at first glance.

But where the Zephyr really shines is at bedtime, when each premium economy traveler gets to lie down — a luxury that isn’t always available even in some business class cabins. “The bed is the ‘more’ when it comes to long-haul flights,” O’Neill told TPG — “what a modern-day traveler really values above all else.”

Instead of converting into a straight lie-flat bed, the Zephyr uses a supplemental cushion to connect two padded sections of the seat into a flat bed where the passenger sleeps at an angle.

While that may not be every traveler’s cup of tea, O’Neill wagers that most premium-economy customers will still find it infinitely preferable to sitting semi-upright for 14 hours. (Another prototype design company, Butterfly Seating, utilizes a similarly angled bed for the business-class version of its cabin-flexible seat prototype.)

Courtesy of Zephyr

“Airlines are unwilling to make big changes without knowing what the modern-day traveler wants and is willing to pay for,” O’Neill said. Yet consumers are speaking up more and more, with both their words and their dollars.

Points-savvy travelers know to utilize points and miles for truly aspirational redemptions, such as the Etihad A380’s first-class apartments. But O’Neill, a seasoned traveler and avid points and miles collector himself, believes that airlines can price the Zephyr competitively enough for customers to pay for it outright, in cash.

Related: The worst business class I ever flew

“We’re hoping to cut business-class seat prices in half” with the Zephyr, O’Neill told TPG. Current premium economy flights from California to Europe cost just over $1,400 round-trip, while flights from New York to Hong Kong cost about the same. “That’s ideally right in line with what Zephyr seats will cost.”

As of now, no airlines have committed to implementing the Zephyr. But that won’t stop the designers from continuing to improve their concept.

At the end of the day, “We’re customers who are paying for seats,” O’Neill said. “What if you could do whatever you want in that seat, period?” 

All images and video courtesy of Zephyr.

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