Bunk Beds and Separated Seats: Airlines Plot Economy Comfort to Lure Flyers

Bunk Beds and Separated Seats: Airlines Plot Economy Comfort to Lure Flyers

By Tania Bhattacharya


In a post-coronavirus world, economy passengers will be more critical than ever for the fortunes of carriers.

By Tania Bhattacharya

Imagine you book an economy-class ticket for a long-haul flight, but instead of hours of cramped seating in one position, you’re able to sleep on a cushy private bunk bed — at a fraction of the cost of a business-class ticket. Traveling with kids? All those extra bags will fit easily into redesigned overhead bins, while your toddler can sink into an inflatable seat that spreads wide enough to help her sleep safely. And in-flight personalized service isn’t an impossible dream anymore, as smart cabins come of age.

Such benefits have for decades been the preserve of business- and first-class cabins, while cheap tickets increasingly became the only lure airlines used to attract economy passengers. Economy amenities shrank even more as low-cost airlines gathered steam. That made sense. Business and first-class passengers represent 5 percent of seats but 30 percent revenue on international flights, according to the International Air Transport Association.

But growing demand for an in-between, premium economy segment — which has quickly emerged as the most profitable class for some airlines — has made manufacturers, carriers and designers start to focus on turning economy travel into a more pleasurable experience. Now, the coronavirus pandemic is making those efforts critical for carriers looking to survive the aviation industry’s worst-ever crisis. With business travel expected to suffer from a potentially permanent disruption — as Zoom calls replace some meetings long term — airlines will need to sharpen their offerings to compete for economy passengers they could earlier take for granted. Many of the design changes they’re preparing are ideally suited for social distancing.

In 2018, Airbus introduced a design for sleeping berths in what are otherwise cargo holds in passenger aircraft. In February, Air New Zealand announced its prototype bunk beds called Economy Skynest, for which it has filed patents. London-based New Territory has designed Interspace, where padded wings fold out from seatbacks to provide lateral support and separate seats, offering privacy. The design debuted at the Virgin Atlantic Aircraft Cabin Innovation Summit in December.

Other airlines are introducing an array of tech-heavy features, from advanced reading lights to smart windows. For example, Indian airline Vistara is ready to launch a “human-centric lighting” system on its new Dreamliner, where the cabin light color, intensity and direction will change based on the sleep-wake cycle of passengers, to help reduce jet lag. California-headquartered company Safran has developed overhead bins that can accommodate 60 percent more luggage than standard storage.

We could expect more business travel in economy.

Joris Melkert, director of education, TU Delft

Designer Ciara Crawford’s Row 1 wheelchair, which won the European Design Product Award in 2019, allows passengers with reduced mobility to remain on the wheelchair during flight, as it integrates with the airplane seat, without taking additional space. And Italian airline seat manufacturer Aviointeriors has come up with new seating system — called Janus — for a post-coronavirus world. The middle seat in a three-seat row can face the back of the aircraft to reduce the distance between passengers’ faces, while transparent screens separate seats.

“For years, a lot of the aircraft cabin innovations lacked focus on the economy class area,” says Crawford. “Thankfully I feel like this is beginning to change.”

At a time when financially strapped carriers are looking for every possible revenue source, these innovations allow them to charge a little extra for economy tickets with smarter, cooler, add-on offerings, without passengers needing to shell out anything close to business-class fare. Air New Zealand, for instance, has suggested that an Economy Skynest bunk bed, when it becomes available, might cost passengers an additional $100.

Swiss company Aircraft Innovations has pioneered the Junior Comfort Seat, an inflatable extension for children up to 5 years old that can be fitted anywhere. “I have been asked by several customers for a solution for children and babies as more and more parents travel with their kids even on long-range flights; the usual baby baskets cannot keep up with the demand,” says Harald Riner, CEO of Aircraft Innovations. The company has also designed the ECO Sleeper, where three or four empty seats in a row can be turned into a bed. The Junior Comfort Seat could cost passengers an additional $30, and the ECO Sleeper $200, Riner estimates.

Behind many of these innovations is a focus from companies on individual-specific pricing that not only caters to single passenger needs but also allows for greater revenue generation. “Service classes in the future will be even more diverse and flexible, because passenger needs are more diverse,” says Nathan Kwok, vice president of marketing for Safran Cabin.

Evolving cabin designs and segmentation, and variable amenities, reflect this. For example, one passenger may want first-class legroom but prefers to eat in the terminal before departure, while another may not care about extra legroom “but would like a really nice meal without having to pay for a first-class ticket,” Kwok points out.

Other initiatives will benefit all passengers in the cabin — such as the increased bin space Safran has designed. “Our vision is that every passenger has a space for their bag, even the budget flier that has to board last,” says Kwok, whose firm is also behind some of the most popular galley designs used by major airliners.

The future looks even more revolutionary. Take, for instance, the Flying-V aircraft model being developed by TU Delft, Airbus and KLM. It’s designed to be 20 percent more fuel efficient than an A350 and will seat as many passengers. The passenger cabin, cargo hold and fuel tanks are all integrated into the wings, and the model features four kinds of seating — individual, lounges, group seats and collapsible beds. “Robots will serve food when passengers want it, and drinks will be at a buffet to keep passengers walking,” says Peter Vink, chair of the department of sustainable design engineering at TU Delft.

The new aircraft KLM and TU Delft are designing.

For sure, all of these innovations can only work once people start flying again. But in the long run, Joris Melkert, director of education at the Faculty of Aerospace Engineering, TU Delft, expects aviation to “flourish” wherever there is an “upcoming middle class.”

And experts are convinced that once the health crisis eases, flying will pick up again, even if working from home and virtual meetings remain popular. As is, many business travelers fly economy. With companies closely monitoring their bottom lines in the current economic climate, that practice might only grow — further elevating the importance of economy cabins.

“Already people are missing face-to-face communication, and in sealing deals this will remain important,” says Melkert. “We could expect more business travel in economy.”