Travelling is delightful, but sometimes the experience itself is not — especially for economy cabin airline travellers. “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.
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 travelling. But when seat rows are as tightly situated as they often are these days, people may feel uncomfortable asking their fellow travellers 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 economy 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.
“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 neighbours, 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 be impacted in favour 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 travellers comfortable while seated upright.
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 traveller 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 traveller 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 traveller’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.)
“Airlines are unwilling to make big changes without knowing what the modern-day traveller 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 travellers know to utilise points and miles for truly aspirational redemptions, such as the Etihad A380’s first-class apartments. But O’Neill, a seasoned traveller 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.
“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?”
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