Lie-Flat Seats: Comfort and Rest on Long Flights

Zephyr lie-flat seat
Zephyr lie-flat seat photo courtesy of Zephyr Aerospace.

Zephyr Promises Comfort for Commercial Passengers with its Lie-Flat Seats

By Samantha Butts

lie-flat seating
Lie-flat seating, photo courtesy of Zephyr Aerospace.

Long-distance flights can be exhausting from the length alone, but oftentimes flyers find it difficult to relax and fall asleep on these flights.

For the past few years, Zephyr Aerospace has been working toward tackling this issue with its lie-flat seating on airplanes.

Zephyr is reinventing airline seat designs, specifically for travelers on long-distance flights. It will provide access to in-flight sleep, privacy, and aisle access for more travelers on long-distance flights.

Business class to Europe is usually where you would find comforts like this, but these are going to be offered to the regular folks in coach too.

Founder and CEO of Zephyr Aerospace, Jeffrey O’Neill said, “the goal of this project is to democratize access to given flight sleep, which presently is very expensive and only offered to a business or first-class traveler.”

How do the seats work?

O’Neill describes this as a space optimization project utilizing the verticle space above a standard airline seat where the overhead bins are. Zephyr is using that space to stack a second occupant. By using this wasted space, Zephyr is able to offer more comfort and privacy as well as aisle space without impacting the customer’s personal space.

Zephyr lie-flat seat
Luxurious add-ons, photo courtesy of Zephyr Aerospace.

Each Zephyr seat provides a 78” lie-flat bed in complete privacy. The design allows passengers to lie completely flat, lounge, or sit upright with their legs extended.

The stacked lie-flat seats provide travelers with the same privacy as business class travelers and a ladder provide easy access to the upper seat, which can be removed after boarding.

The design could increase capacity by at least 20% on long-haul aircraft. Using the innovative stacked seating, each Zephyr lie-flat seat can be built into the existing real estate of the airline.

The non-mechanical seats have limited movable fixtures and are made with lightweight composite materials which would reduce direct maintenance costs for airlines.

An idea was born

The idea for these seats came to O’Neill when he was on a flight from New York to Singapore. The around 20-hour flight is one of the longest in the world. Seated in the premium economy seats, which are designed wider for more comfort, O’Neill found himself struggling to relax.

After about six hours into his flight, O’Neill realized he still had many to go and was finding it difficult to sleep. In this moment, sleep was all he could think of. Then, the idea for the lie-flat seating came to him.

“I just was kind of looking around and I realized there’s so much wasted space,” O’Neill said. He looked above and thought, what if we could put a bunk bed right above here, and then someone could crawl in there to sleep.

View from above
View from above, photo courtesy of Zephyr Aerospace.

Why do we need these seats?

A majority of economy airline seats are fixed upright, which can make it difficult to sleep. Business-class may offer better seating, however, upgrading their ticket is not always an option for many travelers. “Premium Economy Class seating offers glorified economy seats that only give a few extra inches of leg space – with no lie-flat feature,” said Zephyr Aerospace.

In a study, Zephyr Aerospace found that 70% of travelers would trade bundling perks for the ability to lie flat and sleep.

Zephyr is pushing for innovation in Premium Economy Class where O’Neill said that there have been no improvements.

“We’re trying to offer a better product in the same physical real estate footprint on the plane,” said O’Neill.

An idea becoming a reality

Zephyr designed its first concept in 2018 and showed it at a trade show in 2019. In that same year, its first full-scale mockup prototype was launched.

zephyr seat bottom
Photo courtesy of Zephyr Aerospace.

As the design evolves, Zephyr has performed engineering analyses allowing the company to build two different mock-ups and prototypes.

The two mock-ups have been showcased to the industry and trade shows to individual airlines and seat manufacturing companies to gauge their feedback.

Since its first concept, Zephyr has been able to gather investors that have nourished the company’s growth. The company has gained two private investors and funding from a public campaign.

The full technical and design feasibility study has been approved by leading aerospace engineers, however, it may still be a while before these seats are implemented officially.

Two major challenges

“Airlines are very conservative,” said O’Neill. He explained that the airline industry is complex, which can make it difficult to push innovation. O’Neill is working on solving, what he calls an “evolutionary problem.” While it might not be an immediate issue, it is still present and travelers will push for improved and enhanced flight experiences. Despite a lack of support from the airline industry, O’Neill remains hopeful.

Patrick Smith, an airline pilot, recognized the potential issues with putting more customers on planes. “There are complications,” he said. “But I thought it was an interesting idea with some potential.”

The other prominent issue Zephyr faces is the certification process for the stacked lie-flat seats. The seats must go through the regulatory approval process, which is time-consuming and expensive. However, the process is necessary and there are no tricks around it.

“Airlines is a very tough space because it’s impacting safety, passenger experience, security, cabin environment, engineering,” said O’Neill.

Lie-flat seat
Photo courtesy of Zephyr Aerospace.

When will we see these seats in action?

In the best-case scenario, O’Neill estimates it will take two to three years for complete certification. This would require a very aggressive commercial and sales plan to encourage airlines of the value of this product.

In the meantime, O’Neill is looking to apply Zephyr’s lie-flat seating to other modes of transportation. He is looking at applications for train travel, long-distance buses, and automated air taxis.

O’Neill said the value proposition for sleep is as needed in other modes of transportation as it is in commercial air travel.

Despite minimal support from airlines, Zephyr has received positive feedback from customers and travelers.

“This is a very attractive product because it’s something that people want that they need in many cases and that they didn’t know was possible to exist,” said O’Neill.

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