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More leg room, less space to breathe: Meet the double-decker plane seat

Let’s not pretend that building a comfortable chair is all that challenging. The problem is the airline business model.

More leg room, less space to breathe: Meet the double-decker plane seat
[Photo: courtesy Alejandro Núñez Vicente]

Flying business class is passable. But for everyone else, the experience of flight is awful. Leisure travel has devolved into a Lord of the Flies battle for resources—the slightest recline of our seats, some fresh air to breathe through a mask—that turns passengers against each other in desperation. This hell is the natural consequence of air travel’s business plan to maximize bodies on a plane to offset high fuel costs; it’s a business plan that, horrendously, works.

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[Photo: courtesy Alejandro Núñez Vicente]
So what’s the next chapter of budget air travel? Some believe it’s stacking passengers two-high. Alejandro Núñez Vicente was a graduate student studying industrial design when his concept for a double-decker airline seat caught the eye of the airline industry and investors alike. After winning a prestigious industry award last year, he’s the CEO of Chaise Lounge Economy Seat, the name of both his product and company.

[Photo: courtesy Alejandro Núñez Vicente]
His proposed seat system fits into the center aisle of a plane. People on the bottom can fully extend their legs, at the expense of space between their face and the seat in front of them. People on top (who fit because overhead storage has been removed, with suitcases going under the seats instead) sit in typical seats. The catch is that they don’t have enough head room to stand. Meanwhile, the airline benefits the most, with the option to fit an additional 5%-10% of ticketed passengers into the center row, depending on how much they fiddle with the particulars of leg room.

As radical as the idea may seem, Núñez Vicente actually isn’t the first to design a double-decker plane seat. In 2020, designer Jeffrey O’Neil proposed the Zephyr Seat, which reimagined seating as a series of bunk beds. But Núñez Vicente has struck a certain nerve of the internet, spawning thought pieces and memes with his vision for a remarkably snug seating arrangement. Meanwhile, he claims that representatives from every major airline have come to try his seat at Hamburg’s famed Aircraft Interiors Expo this week.

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As he joins me on a video stream, a small crowd still surrounds his prototype on the otherwise empty show floor. Núñez Vicente points out several merits in his design, while his thin, 6-foot-2-inch frame slides easily into a bottom-row seat. He explains that while most airline seats tilt back to 110 degrees, his reaches a full 125 degrees. This extra tilt is meaningful, as ergonomic research has shown that people sleep better the more reclined they sit. Meanwhile, his legs stretch out straight in front of him without needing to bend.

“The space for legs is unmatched,” he says. Then, turning his attention to the mere inches of space between his nose and the seat in front of him, he adds, “This is a little closer. But if you close your eyes and you’re sleeping, you don’t care. . . . For me, even if it’s a little more claustrophobic, I prefer the lower seats.”

[Photo: courtesy Alejandro Núñez Vicente]
I mention that while he might be alright with the sensation of a tight space, that’s not true for everyone. An estimated 12.5% of the population suffers from claustrophobia. And we all value breathing room and sight lines across a plane—both of which have long been considered important parts of airline seat design. Even when your knees hit the seat in front of you, the perception of air space can make you feel more comfortable.

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Núñez Vicente doesn’t deny the realities of claustrophobia but insists that consumer preference is the key to his design outlook. Since his double-decker seats only fit into middle rows, the side rows of the plane would still have typical seats. The bottom row might not work for heavier people, he admits, especially if they attempted to squeeze into the boxed-in center seat. But they could always utilize the top row of his design, he says, which is an otherwise typical plane seat that’s been elevated. He calls this vantage point an “SUV experience” that puts your head over your surroundings, allowing you to look down on the cabin.

This approach is specifically not embracing universal design, where an object is built one way to work for everyone. Instead, Núñez Vicente argues that coach passengers would have three unique seating options under his design, and they could choose the path most comfortable for their physique and mental state

“If you don’t like heights, you wouldn’t go skydiving,” he says of the top row. “If you’re claustrophobic, you wouldn’t go on the lower row. But if you have long legs, you would.”

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This argument assumes that consumers can always choose the seat they want, when in reality they’re often forced to pick any remaining open seat on a plane. However, Núñez Vicente is right that in a world where people come in all shapes and sizes, the one-size-fits-all lie of flight seating is doing us a disservice. Maybe we really would be more comfortable with seats more tailored to our unique experiences, pulling the levers of ergonomic comfort ourselves rather than having them imposed upon us. And airlines, of course, have already proven that they’d be thrilled to nickel-and-dime us for the slightest improvement.

Yet the shortcoming with that thinking is that comfortable seating isn’t a design problem. We know how to build seats that satisfy 95% of people already, and you’ll find them on trains, in cars, and in living rooms everywhere. You’ll even find them on a plane, in business class.

There is no physical reason that any known style of good seating can’t also work on a plane, so long as it’s engineered to be light enough to satisfy fuel costs. The practical reason they don’t is that airlines insist on packing more flyers into plane cabins than is feasible. And until they stop, we’re going to keep seeing designers cram bodies into 747s like Tetris pieces, flipping and turning us to fill every gap. Their ideas may contain a certain brilliance, just like Núñez Vicente’s double-decker seat design does. But that doesn’t mean these ideas are actually any good.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach

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