Could Double-Decker Airline Seats Become a Reality?
A recently proposed double-decker aircraft cabin design might have travelers wondering how likely it is for unconventional airplane interior concepts to get implemented on a commercial aircraft. Here’s what it takes.
If there’s one aspect of the air travel experience that has defied efforts to improve or change much, it’s the humble coach-class airline seat.
Every few years a bold idea for “reinventing” this product is floated, only to be dismissed as impractical or unsafe. Remember the infamous “standing seat,” in which budget passengers would be tightly packed into rows of practically upright pallets? A prototype that was unveiled a few years ago drew comparisons to a medieval torture device and the bad PR likely discouraged any serious interest from airlines.
There are several major hurdles to getting anything that radical past government regulators, including the requirement that an airline must be able to evacuate a full planeload in an emergency in 90 seconds. A fresh reminder of the importance of safe evacuations came on June 21 in Miami when a jet operated by Red Air, a Dominican carrier, slid off the runway after landing in Miami when its landing gear failed; at least 4 of the 140 people aboard reportedly were injured as they fled the crippled plane.
I tried out a double decker airplane seat | CNN Travel https://t.co/IRT4kXMMCJ — Victor Asal (@Victor_Asal) June 15, 2022
But the idea of figuring out how to pack more people onto a plane hasn’t lost its appeal for airlines as demand for air travel soars. Enter the “double-decker” cabin layout, which made a splash last month at the Aircraft Interiors Expo (AIX), an industry trade show in Hamburg, Germany. The design concept, officially called the Chaise Longue Economy Seat, would see coach-class fliers seated in two levels connected by ladder-like steps, the upper level taking space created by removing the overhead storage bins (carry-ons would go in a bin underneath the higher seats).
Even more unusual is that the concept came not from an experienced aircraft seat designer or firm but from a 22-year-old entrepreneur, Alejandro Nuñez Vicente, who dreamed it up as an engineering student at TU Delft University in the Netherlands. According to Nuñez Vicente, his inspiration came from trying to squeeze his six-foot frame into cramped coach seats on his frequent flights back home to Madrid. He claims that his idea would actually improve comfort by giving fliers more legroom than they typically get now—with seat pitch of up to 32 inches, versus the 28 to 30 inches separating rows in the typical cattle class configuration now. And, to appeal to airline bean-counters, the concept could allow for a 5 to 10 percent increase in seating capacity, Nuñez Vicente said in remarks to reporters at the trade show. He says the seats could work on a wide-body jet like an Airbus A330 or Boeing 787.
So far, the seat has gotten mixed reviews from industry insiders. “The design is certainly unconventional,” says Henry Harteveldt, cofounder and travel analyst at Atmosphere Research. On the plus side: “It would offer airlines the potential to increase density without taking away legroom,” says Harteveldt. But he notes that “we’ve never had two levels of seats in a cabin and that is in great part due to aviation safety concerns.”
Travel expert Gary Leff, founder of the View From the Wing travel blog, is also skeptical. “Any nonstandard seat design will have a tough time getting approved by regulators,” he says.
Nuñez Vicente’s concept isn’t the first double-decker coach-class idea. A few years ago, a team of designers filed a patent for new economy-class setup dubbed the “Zephyr” which includes bunk-bed style compartments with lie-flat seats (which differ from the recently unveiled Skynest napping pods that Air New Zealand will integrate into economy). While the idea would certainly appeal to long-suffering coach fliers, especially on long-haul flights, it is still in the early stages of development.
Egress and evacuation testing is just one part of the approval process for new cabin designs; like automobile seats, airline seats must undergo rigorous crash tests before they are certified. The most recent government rules on crash resistance require that all seats on planes built after 2009 be able to withstand 16 Gs of impact force, or 16 times the gravitational pull—nearly double the previous 9 G requirement. Sample seats are outfitted with test dummies and put through simulated crashes, much like airbag tests for cars. The whole process from initial design to certification can take five years or more.
Anything out of the ordinary will draw more scrutiny. When Air New Zealand sought approval for its novel Skycouch, a row of coach seats that converts into a two-person bed, from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (its approval is required for planes flying to and from the U.S.), it took longer than usual due to regulators’ concerns over the adequacy of the seat belts in such an unorthodox arrangement (the seating was ultimately approved).
Not all cabin innovations are about squeezing more people into the same confined space. At the recent AIX show, organizers gave Crystal Cabin Awards for creative designs that focused on health, safety, and flexible configurations, ranging from an “airshield” that can help prevent the spread of germs, to a “shift cabin interior” that allows seats to be configured into multiple positions for work or relaxation. This year, Ken Kirtland from the Georgia Institute of Technology won in the University category for his modern regional airline concept featuring zero-emission electric-powered aircraft with “Portal” cabins that have panoramic window views.
William McGee, senior fellow for aviation and travel at the American Economic Liberties Project and author of the book Attention All Passengers says that given the realities of air travel today, the FAA may need to keep closer tabs on the safety of airplane seats and layouts. “Planes are fuller, and people are carrying more bags into the cabin because of fees for checked bags,” he says.
Given all the hurdles, it’s no wonder the economy seat hasn’t changed much over the years. But hey, traveling in cattle class builds character, right? And one can always dream of a flying future that is safer, healthier, more comfortable, and more sustainable.