in the press

Could planes start installing bunk beds in economy?

By Annabel Fenwick Elliott | The Telegraph | 24 April 2018
Link to original article

You’ve got a 12-hour flight to Dubai: would you rather be sitting up or lying down? For most, it’s an easy answer. No-one likes being strapped to a chair, sharing armrests with strangers for such a long stint; that’s why it costs a lot of money to get horizontal on a plane. Which got us thinking.

As we know, cabins these days are designed to fit an ever-increasing number of (smaller) seats in rows, but what of all that space above our heads? Wouldn’t it make sense to stack passengers horizontally, in bunk-style pods, the same way capsule hotels or even sleeper trains do?

The problem of space is, after all, only getting worse. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) expects 7.2 billion passengers to travel in 2035, a near doubling of the 3.8 billion air travelers in 2016. And flights are getting longer too. Qatar’s Doha to Auckland route transports passengers a full 9,028 miles (more than 16 hours) with no stops, with Qantas’ London to Perth route only slightly shorter in length (9,008 miles). Again, that’s a long time to be upright.

The bunks that already exist

Sleeping bunks are, in fact, already operational on planes – at least for cabin crew on long-haul flights. Some larger planes, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner included, have a compartment consisting of stacked beds for cabin crew to rest in. They are accessed by a trap door from the cockpit, and sit at the top of the aircraft, above the ceiling of the main cabin.

…and the ones being planned

As for the concept being adapted for passengers, funny you should ask. Just this month at Hamburg’s Aircraft Interiors Expo, Airbus, Europe’s biggest aircraft manufacturer, announced its plans to turn plane cargo holds into sleeping and relaxation compartments for passengers.

The firm said it had partnered with Zodiac Aerospace, an aviation equipment supplier, to create the new space, which could give economy class flyers the chance to swap cramped seating for capsule-style beds and sofas.

Geoff Pinner, head of cabin and cargo at Airbus, told Telegraph Travel: “Airlines came to us to see how they can better utilise the space in their aircraft. With lower deck use, they can also generate more revenue without having to spend money to change the aircraft or add business-class seats.

“On a long-haul flight, the airline could potentially rent out each of these spaces to a number of passengers in different time slots throughout the flight. So an economy class offering could potentially come with a sleeping bed add-on.”

It is hoped the concept will enter its development phase by 2020. The new design, if approved, would be rolled out across the manufacturer’s A330 aircraft for long-haul flights, with more than 150 of them already built with a basic structural provision for lower deck facilities, and potentially for the A350 aircraft in the future.

Haven’t we seen designs like this before?

Yes, Airbus has being tinkering with this for some time, but until now nothing has come to fruition. Nearly a decade ago, speaking at the Business Travel Show in London, the head of interiors at Airbus, Robert Lange, said: “Airlines are looking at how to get premium-economy passengers sleeping horizontally. It’s some way off, but bunk beds could be the answer, as we are not currently using the full volume of the cabin.”

Since then, the company has filed hundreds of patents on designs that in some way or another load people horizontally – some more wacky than others.

In 2007 German airline Lufthansa said it was considering the use of triple-decker bunk beds on its Airbus A380, and that results from the survey it conducted on them were “very positive”. These designs revealed a stripped back configuration in which passengers look somewhat like they’re strapped to adjoining stretchers. Around the same time Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary said he thought the concept was promising. Again, it never got much further than a drawing.

Then there were the very groovy-looking designs (below) which emerged in 2015, which would sit in a designated area of the plane and allow passengers to fully recline in a two-tier layout. The “Air Lair” was created by London-based agency Factorydesign, who were asked to make a protype on behalf of Zodiac – suppliers to British Airways.

“The industry has seen a lot of these kinds of ultra-high density seating concepts over the past years, ranging from saddle-like seating to bubble-shaped pods stacked on top of each other,” Raymond Kollau, founder of said at the time. “But it will be a long way before stacked seats come to the aircraft cabin.  Certification and passenger opposition to being ‘stacked like cattle’ present significant barriers.”

The biggest hurdle

Safety, and hand-in-hand, cost.

Nigel Goode, lead aviation designer and co-founder at Priestman Goode, which has been delivering aircraft interiors for 30 years, told Telegraph Travel: “It’s a laborious and expensive process, which cost millions of dollars and it’s why airlines try to avoid having to redesign or change their seats too often.”

Passenger seats are usually changed between seven to 10 years on average, he adds. “Many low-cost carriers tend to go with quite standard seats, purchased directly from manufacturers, which are already certified so it’s cheaper.”

Justin Dubon, Head of Global News at Airbus, weighs in: “Aviation is one of the most highly regulated industries and also one of the most innovative. All cabin product offerings must conform to regulations stipulated by the certification authorities like EASA in Europe and the FAA in the USA.

“One of these regulations is that passengers must be seated and belted at take-off and landing. You’d think that sleeper compartments could be a more efficient use of space; however the number of passengers that can be carried in an aircraft is a function of the number of exit doors. So even if you could physically carry more passengers – one would only be permitted to carry as many as is allowed to by the number of exit doors.”

What do you think?

When Airbus filed for yet another patent for a bunk-style seat formation in 2015, around a third of Telegraph Travel readers we surveyed actually saw promise in the proposals.

It certainly wouldn’t be a runner for claustrophobics. And would likely make getting in and out even more of a faff, if you’re the sort who is partial to regular gangway strolls – although it would solve the issue of having to wake your neighbour in order to do so. Also, you’d have to eat Roman style, in a sideways recline.

I love the idea – will it ever happen?

There is clearly weight behind the argument that planes should have bunks. The fact that Airbus has been toying with the concept for more than a decade and has now announced solid plans for a version of them suggests we might be seeing more.

I hate it, please no!

It won’t be any time soon, that much is certain, and it’s unlikely that an entire commercial aircraft will ever swap all its seats for stacked capsules. But delegating a certain area for a bank of them? It could happen…