Flying economy class has become a very uncomfortable way to travel. Passengers often have to contort their limbs into tighter and tighter spaces. However, a Spanish university student from Madrid hopes his unusual invention will reverse this annoying trend.
Twitter has turned 22-year-old Alejandro Núñez Vicente’s university project into a viral sensation. Now he wants to turn it into a reality, and his prototype of the Chaise Longue Economy Seat has attracted global attention. The innovative airplane seat is meant to be installed in a bi-level cabin that has rows of traditional seats on the floor, and rows of elevated seats. This design will enable airlines to maximize space without sacrificing passenger comfort. People will be able to stretch out until they are almost completely horizontal, as if seated on a divan or chaise longue, hence the name of the invention.
Núñez is a Spanish engineering student at TU Delft University in the Netherlands who is over six feet tall. His height and frequent flights home to Madrid explain how he came up with the idea for the Chaise Longue Economy Seat. “I used to fly home to Madrid on weekends, and those short flights were terrible. I can’t even imagine what long flights on those planes would be like. That’s when the idea started to take shape,” he told us.
His design uses the limited space of an airplane cabin by raising up some seats and eliminating the overhead luggage compartment. Instead, carry-on bags can be stored in compartments under the seat. Extra legroom for passengers seated in the lower rows was also added. Since the rows of seats are not lined up one after the other, a seat can be reclined much more than normal without disturbing the passenger behind. “These seats can recline 125 degrees, 15 degrees more than normal. No other airplane seat available today can do this,” said Núñez.
One of the consequences of airlines cramming more seats on planes is that people can’t recline their seats without disturbing other passengers. Everyone reclines their seats like a row of falling dominoes, but then some passengers don’t, perhaps because they are using the seatback table to work or eat. Then the arguments begin, sometimes escalating to shouts and fights. People began bringing the so-called knee defenders on board, a tool that prevents the passenger in front of reclining… until airlines like United and Virgin banned them.
Núñez started working on the Chaise Longue Economy Seat in 2021 as a university engineering project, after proposing the idea to his professor, Peter Vink, an expert in aircraft interior design. Then he was nominated for the Crystal Cabin Awards in 2021, a major award in the aviation industry, and he started to rethink the scope of his idea. “I didn’t win, but I kind of did, because everyone heard about my invention. A lot of articles were published, and people started talking about it,” said Núñez. The media attention finally made him take the leap. He put his master’s degree on hold and obtained funding to work full-time on a prototype.
His biggest sponsor is a Spanish company–Aircraft Interior Refurbishment España (AIRE). “This will be the first Spanish aircraft seat design,” said Núñez. Unfortunately, he thinks that projects like his are more likely to succeed abroad, and he has recently traveled the world, presenting the project in New York and Germany. After 16 flights, he admits to having an aching back, and hopes that his invention will someday alleviate this problem.
The incredible shrinking seat
The demand for low-cost air travel and the need to maximize profits have led airlines to increase seating capacity by reducing the space between seats. In the early 2000s, airplanes averaged almost 34 inches of space between economy class rows. Now, the average is 30-31 inches according to FlyersRights, a US passenger advocacy group. Núñez’s prototype averages 30-32 inches between rows, but it seems much more spacious because you can fully stretch your legs out in the lower-level seat, and both levels allow you to recline almost horizontally. It’s a breakthrough in an area that has only experienced deteriorating passenger comfort.
“Since the 1950s, the golden age of air travel, seats have become increasingly narrow, closer together, and provide less legroom,” said Núñez. His seat aims to reverse that trend and “improve passenger comfort for the first time in decades.”
Núñez answered our call between meetings at the Aircraft Interiors Expo, an aeronautical furnishings trade show in Hamburg. This is where the Skyrider 2.0 made its entrance a few years ago. Skyrider is an “ultra-density saddle seat” in which passengers are almost standing, and was intended to increase a plane’s seating capacity by up to 20%. It also became a viral sensation, but for the exact opposite reasons than Núñez’s popular prototype.
In its current configuration, the Chaise Longue Economy Seat does not promise to increase seating capacity, although with some modifications it could achieve a 5-10% increase. Núñez isn’t focused on putting more passengers on planes, he just wants to make them a little more comfortable. In today’s aviation landscape, this is why his invention is revolutionary and innovative.