Editor’s Note: Monthly Ticket is a CNN Travel series that highlights some of the most fascinating topics in world travel. In June, we’re looking to the skies as we spotlight the exciting world of aviation.
Would you sit directly below another airplane passenger?
It might not sound particularly appealing on paper, but 23-year-old airplane seat designer Alejandro Núñez Vicente believes double-level seating is the future of economy flying.
You may have seen a photo of Núñez Vicente’s Chaise Longue Airplane Seat prototype floating around the internet. Following a CNN Travel exclusive last year, Núñez Vicente’s concept went viral – igniting furious debate and prompting a flurry of reactions from would-be passengers – some outraged, some bemused, some intrigued, some all of the above.
“To be honest, there’s no such thing as bad publicity,” Núñez Vicente told CNN Travel today. Proving this sentiment, he’s back at the Aircraft Interiors Expo (AIX) in Hamburg, Germany – showing a new iteration of his controversial Chaise Longue.
“People can talk and they always hate innovation in some way,” he says. “Most of the times when they show you something new, everyone hates it at first, they’re scared of change. But the more you show it, and the more you develop it, and the more they see it, the more they get used to it.”
Núñez Vicente’s concept started small – as a college project back in 2021. A nomination for the 2021 Crystal Cabin Awards – a top prize in the aviation industry – catapulted the concept into the public consciousness. Núñez Vicente paused his master’s degree and put all his time, money and efforts into making his vision a reality.
Fast forward to today and Núñez Vicente has sponsors, partnership deals and is in regular conversation with “the biggest players in the industry.” He believes his double-level airplane seat is the future of economy flying and is working around the clock to make it a reality.
Comfort and cabin capacity
When would-be passengers wince at the potential claustrophobia and critics suggest the design is all about airlines cramming more seats on planes, Núñez Vicente insists they’ve misunderstood his intentions.
For one, he’s not trying to eradicate the regular airplane seating altogether. Núñez Vicente envisages an airplane cabin in which the Chaise Longue is in the center, flanked by two rows of regular airplane seating. He’s aware the seat wouldn’t be suitable or appealing to everyone, even if he thinks it could be more comfortable for some passengers.
At 6 feet 2 inches (1.88 meters), Núñez Vicente has spent many a cramped flight struggling for legroom and failing to sleep. He says he designed the Chaise Longue to solve the airplane seat conundrum – not to make it worse.
Still, the designer admits that for airlines, the appeal of the Chaise Longue is the increased passenger headcount.
“Many airlines and many big players in the industry are trying to push us to put more passengers into the aircraft,” he said. “It’s not our main priority and our main goal, but with this kind of design it’s also possible.”
At this year’s Aircraft Interiors Expo, Núñez Vicente’s latest prototype will be tested out by a slew of airline bigwigs. He says he’s always excited to get feedback from the industry, but is also keen for other would-be travelers to give their two cents.
When the Chaise Longue hit the headlines in 2022, Núñez Vicente says he received multiple requests from people looking to travel to his home city of Madrid, Spain, to test the prototype himself.
“We had people coming to try it, famous people that saw the article, and they were like, ‘I want to go and try it,’” says Núñez Vicente.
Now Núñez Vicente’s launched the Chaise Longue in the Metaverse, thanks to a collaboration with a company called 3DSeatMap VR, to illustrate what the seat would look like in situ in a cabin. Virtual users can wander around the design and inspect it for themselves.
But Núñez Vicente is also still open to anyone – famous or otherwise – reaching out to experience the Chaise Longue prototype in person and to offer an honest take.
“We do try to adapt to every single constructive feedback we get,” he says. “That’s how we move forward.”
At AIX 2023, CNN Travel was the first to test out the newest Chaise Longue prototype. My first impression is that it’s a little more “real” than last year’s proof of concept. There are four rows – two top level, two bottom level – and the upcycled airplane seats from 1995 (“they’re older than me,” says Núñez Vicente) actually recline, making it easier to visualize how this structure could work on an actual aircraft.
The new design keeps the same basic double-level concept, with a few minor changes. The precarious ladder-like steps that previously got you up to the top level have been switched out for a sturdier version. Luggage on the bottom level is now designed to go under the seat in front of you. Rather than built-in screens, the idea is that passengers could use personal devices for inflight entertainment.
Núñez Vicente says he’s also improved leg room on the top level, and I find it is quite spacious. Plus, because there’s no one directly behind you on the same level, you can recline the seat pretty far back, which is a definite plus.
Núñez Vicente has also added a beam above the top level seats, to indicate ceiling height. I’m 5 feet 10 inches (1.78 meters) and for me it feels like decent space – although it’s still tricky to know what it would actually feel like to be closer to the cabin ceiling than the floor.
As for the bottom level, to me – someone who is not a fan of small spaces – it feels pretty claustrophobic, but this will be a matter of personal opinion. While having a row of seats directly in your eyeline won’t be appealing to everyone, others won’t be as bothered – especially when there’s so much more space to stretch out your feet than in your average economy airplane seat.
Like last year, I concluded that for some travelers just to sleep for the duration of a flight, this could be an effective solution.
And while three people sitting on both the bottom and top rows feel a little tight, the fighting for elbow space is exactly the same in regular economy class.
The seats on the lower level fold up when not in use – theater seat style – which Núñez Vicente says makes the lower row of the design a little more accessible and could accommodate wheelchair users, although the top seat remains off limits for anyone with mobility issues .
Núñez Vicente has spent the last year traveling the world, attending aviation fairs and meeting with industry experts to talk about his vision.
His parents are often by his side supporting him – his father helped him transport the weighty Chaise Longue prototype across Europe by van from Spain to Germany for AIX.
“My father has his own problems and businesses but he traveled 2,200 kilometers with me,” says Núñez Vicente.
And Núñez Vicente’s partner, Clara Service Soto, works on the Chaise Longue full time too, acting as the project’s Chief Operating Officer.
The couple’s friends didn’t get it at first (“You guys are crazy, this won’t happen. what are you doing, you’re wasting your time, you’re not getting a salary, you’re wasting the best years of your life,” Núñez Vicente recalls them saying).
But he says “there’s been a shift of mindset” as the project has grown and garnered momentum. And for Núñez Vicente and Service Soto, sacrificing their social life is worth it for the wild ride they’re enjoying in return.
“We’re getting to travel a lot and experience a lot of different cultures,” says Núñez Vicente. “It’s also enriching, it’s not only about the project, it’s also about the journey behind it.”
While Núñez Vicente says airlines are interested in the idea, there’s no guarantee the Chaise Longue will come to fruition. And if it does, it won’t be for some time – Núñez Vicente is currently working on appropriate certifications – a process that will be lengthy and complex.
Núñez Vicente is also acutely aware that airlines generally aren’t interested in investing in economy class. There are exceptions – like Air New Zealand’s new economy SkyNest – but usually business and first class are where the innovation happens.
Still, Núñez Vicente thinks the double-level structure could ultimately be adapted to any airplane cabin class. He’s just released renderings of a premium economy version of the Chaise Longue – more or less the same concept, just without the lower middle seat.
“At the end of the day, by having a double decker, you optimize the space, you take advantage of the space that otherwise is just water,” he says.
And while the road might be long, and the design may not appeal to all, Núñez Vicente still believes steadily in its viability.
“We know that this will work at some point and people will be grateful for it, even though they don’t know it now, they will be grateful that someone was pushing for a new economy class seat,” he said.