Startup Zephyr Aerospace Targets Passenger Slumber
When it comes to traveling on flights over eight hours, sleep is the “single most important thing” to a passenger, according to Zephyr Aerospace founder and CEO Jeff O’Neill.
And, as more airlines fly ultra-long-haul flights of up to 18 hours, O’Neill says this means the average passenger can be stuck in a regular economy-class seat, which is uncomfortable at best and, at worst, can lead to health concerns.
“It is inhumane how people travel on flights over nine hours,” O’Neill told ATW. “My limit is six hours.”
And—as nonstop flights get longer and longer—it was this frustration that inspired him to design Zephyr Seat, an innovative lie-flat seat that is meant to replace current seats in the premium-economy cabin on ultra-long-haul flights aboard aircraft such as the Airbus A350 and A380, and Boeing 777 and 787.
The Zephyr Seat, which is in the certification process, is essentially a double-decker, similar to a bunk bed. It allows premium-economy passengers to lie flat on ultra-long-haul flights and—because it is in a stacked configuration—maintains the same seating density in the aircraft so the airline does not have to give up capacity.
“I’m a consumer who thought about the idea as a customer solution,” he says. “When you look at a premium-economy class cabin, there are usually only four to five rows of seats. And because our [stacked] seat is modified to fit in a premium-economy class cabin, there is no loss of seating density. This is the single most important benefit of the entire product. There is nothing to lose for airlines.”
Making his case, O’Neill says airlines should focus on trying to offer additional value to the 32-48 passengers seated in a standard premium-economy cabin.
“I’m not asking the airlines to rip out 200 economy seats and put in bunk beds. That’s too much risk. All I’m saying is all the capital investment for seating programs in the past 15 years has gone exclusively to business class. 100% have invested in better business- and first-class seats,” he says.
O’Neill believes business-class seats are “as good as they’re ever going to get—they offer privacy and a full lie-flat bed. They can’t get any better than that. We’re seeing a lot of airlines eliminate first-class entirely because it’s not economically viable. So, the next cabin of innovation is going to be premium economy. And you’re already seeing that demand, load factor and investment have increased 400% in the past 10 years in premium-economy class. So that has to be the next frontier, where airlines ask, ‘What can we do to make this better? What can we do to guarantee 100% load factor four months in advance on every single long-haul flight?’”
San Francisco-based startup Zephyr Aerospace was founded in 2018. O’Neill says he chose the name “Zephyr” because it connotes comfort and being on cloud nine. The dictionary definition actually means “a soft, gentle breeze.”
O’Neill says the company graduated from a design concept to a physical mockup about a year ago and, although feedback has overwhelmingly positive, there is a lot of reservation around the certification of the product. However, he says, “We think there’s enough precedent of bunk beds existing on crew rest seats, both in the private and commercial application, that if we tweak the design a little bit, we think we can get over that hurdle. It will take time; it is not impossible.”
O’Neill is keen to find a launch customer that is willing to co-endorse and advocate for the product’s efficacy.
“Then we think we can expedite the application for regulatory approval a bit faster. Again, it is not guaranteed. But we believe with the support of an airline, that will give fuel to the FAA certification process and hopefully make things move a little bit more quickly.”
The company is working on a timeline of between three to five years, with a fully commercialized product certified, vetted, priced and configured. “But we understand that airlines are going to have about a two-year delay in actual capital expense investment right now [because of the COVID-19 pandemic],” O’Neill says.
He points out that when the Zephyr Seat was invented, the original concept was already COVID-19-compliant.
“It already offered complete privacy and a lie-flat feature. So, we think those will inherently still be in demand whenever the market returns to normalcy,” he says.
“But we are being patient. I am doing this for the industry, and it’s going to take a long, long time. But when it does happen, we believe that it’s only going to take one airline customer to say, ‘I am willing to take a risk; I believe in this.’ And once it’s proven to work, then every other airline will fall in line because they are going to want to compete,” O’Neill says.