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

Feb 26, 2020

This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. Terms apply to the offers listed on this page. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

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

Related: The evolution of the airline seat

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.

Related: Travel etiquette experts declare the final word on the right to recline

“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.

Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card

Earn 90,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Offer ends 8/3/2022.

With Status Boost™, earn 10,000 Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) after you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, up to two times per year getting you closer to Medallion Status. Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels, 2X Miles at restaurants and at U.S. supermarkets and earn 1X Mile on all other eligible purchases. Terms Apply.

Apply Now
More Things to Know
  • Limited Time Offer: Earn 90,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card in your first 3 months. Offer ends 8/3/2022.
  • Earn up to 20,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles (MQMs) with Status Boost® per year. After you spend $25,000 in purchases on your Card in a calendar year, you can earn 10,000 MQMs up to two times per year, getting you closer to Medallion® Status. MQMs are used to determine Medallion® Status and are different than miles you earn toward flights.
  • Earn 3X Miles on Delta purchases and purchases made directly with hotels.
  • Earn 2X Miles at restaurants worldwide including takeout and delivery in the U.S., and at U.S. supermarkets.
  • Earn 1X Miles on all other eligible purchases.
  • Receive a Domestic Main Cabin round-trip companion certificate each year upon renewal of your Card. Payment of the government imposed taxes and fees of no more than $80 for roundtrip domestic flights (for itineraries with up to four flight segments) is required. Baggage charges and other restrictions apply. See terms and conditions for details.
  • Enjoy your first checked bag free on Delta flights.
  • Fee Credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck® after you apply through any Authorized Enrollment Provider. If approved for Global Entry, at no additional charge, you will receive access to TSA PreCheck.
  • Enjoy an exclusive rate of $39 per person per visit to enter the Delta Sky Club® for you and up to two guests when traveling on a Delta flight.
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees.
  • $250 Annual Fee.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees
Regular APR
17.24%-26.24% Variable
Annual Fee
Balance Transfer Fee
Recommended Credit
Terms and restrictions apply. See rates & fees.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.