Flying business class is okay. But for everyone, the flight experience is horrible. Pleasure travel has become a lord of the flies battle for resources – the slightest recline of our seats, a bit of fresh air to breathe through a mask – which pits passengers against each other in desperation. This inferno is the natural consequence of the airline business plan to maximize bodies on an airplane to offset high fuel costs; it’s a business plan that, horribly, works.
So what’s the next chapter in budget air travel? Some think it’s about piling passengers in two. Alejandro Núñez Vicente was a graduate student in industrial design when his double-decker airplane seat concept caught the eye of the airline industry and investors. After winning a prestigious industry award last year, he is the CEO of Chaise Lounge Economy Seat, the name of his product and company.
Its proposed seating system fits into the center aisle of an aircraft. People on the bottom can fully extend their legs, at the expense of the space between their face and the seat in front of them. Those upstairs (who fit because overhead storage has been removed, with suitcases under the seats instead) sit in typical seats. The catch is that they don’t have enough room to stand. Meanwhile, the airline benefits the most, with the ability to seat an additional 5-10% of ticketed passengers in the center row, depending on how well they manipulate the details of space for passengers. legs.
As radical as the idea may seem, Núñez Vicente is actually not the first to design a two-story airplane seat. In 2020, designer Jeffrey O’Neil came up with the Zephyr seat, which reinvented seating into a series of bunk beds. But Núñez Vicente has touched a certain internet nerve, spawning musings and memes with his take on a remarkably comfortable seating arrangement. Meanwhile, he says representatives from all major airlines came to try out his seat at the famous Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg this week.
As he joins me on a video feed, a small crowd still surrounds his prototype on the otherwise empty living room floor. Núñez Vicente points to several merits in its design, while its slim 6-foot-2 frame slips easily into a lower-row seat. He explains that while most airline seats recline at 110 degrees, his sits at 125 degrees. This extra recline is significant, as ergonomic research has shown that people sleep better the more they sit reclined. Meanwhile, his legs stretch straight out in front of him without needing to bend.
“The legroom is unmatched,” he says. Then, focusing his attention on the few centimeters of space between his nose and the seat in front of him, he adds: “It’s a little closer. But if you close your eyes and sleep, you don’t care. . . . For me, even if it’s a little more claustrophobic, I prefer low places.
I mention that while he may be fine with the feeling of tight space, that’s not true for everyone. It is estimated that 12.5% of the population suffers from claustrophobia. And we all appreciate breathing space and sight lines through an aircraft, which have long been considered important elements of aircraft seat design. Even when your knees touch the seat in front of you, the perception of airspace can make you feel more comfortable.
Núñez Vicente does not deny the realities of claustrophobia but insists that consumer preference is key to his design vision. Since its two-tier seats only fit in the middle rows, the plane’s side rows would still have typical seating. The bottom row might not work for heavier people, he admits, especially if they tried to squeeze into the recessed middle seat. But they could still use the top row of his design, he says, which is an otherwise typical airplane seat that’s been elevated. He calls this vantage point an “SUV experience” that puts your head above your surroundings, letting you look down on the cabin.
This approach specifically does not encompass universal design, where an object is constructed in a way that works for everyone. Instead, Núñez Vicente says passengers on the coach would have three unique seating options depending on its design, and they could choose the path most comfortable for their physique and mental state.
“If you don’t like heights, you won’t go skydiving,” he says of the top row. “If you’re claustrophobic, you won’t go down. But if you have long legs, you would.
This argument assumes that consumers can always choose the seat they want, when in reality they are often forced to choose any available seat left on an airplane. However, Núñez Vicente is right that in a world where people come in all shapes and sizes, the unique lie of flight seats is doing us a disservice. Perhaps we would really be more comfortable with seats more suited to our unique experiences, pulling the levers of ergonomic comfort ourselves rather than having them imposed on us. And the airlines, of course, have already proven that they would be happy to give us the slightest improvement.
Yet the flaw in this thinking is that comfortable seating is not a design issue. We know how to build seats that 95% of people are already happy with, and you’ll find them everywhere on trains, in cars and in living rooms. You will even find them on a plane, in business class.
There’s no physical reason a known style of good seat can’t work on an airplane, as long as it’s designed to be light enough to cover fuel costs. The practical reason they don’t is because airlines insist on packing more flyers into airplane cabins than is possible. And until they stop, we’re going to keep seeing designers cram bodies into 747s like Tetris pieces, tossing and turning to fill every void. Their ideas may contain a certain brilliance, just like the design of the two-tier seat by Núñez Vicente. But that doesn’t mean these ideas are actually good.