Saturday, October 10, 2015

Tourist Class Sleepers?

I am currently sitting in San Francisco airport waiting for a flight to Houston, where I change to a flight to Sao Paulo, Brazil, scheduled to arrive at 8:45 in the morning. I am, as usual, flying tourist class.

Some years ago, I flew to New Zealand business class at someone else’s expense. It was a much pleasanter experience than I expect this flight to be. The stroking that goes with an expensive ticket was nice, but the real benefit was a seat that turned into a bed. That makes me wonder whether it would be possible to provide sleeping accommodations on overnight flights at something closer to the cost of an ordinary tourist class ticket.
What that probably requires is a plane whose seats can convert into beds—I suspect the cost of having a plane only used for sleeper flights is too high to make it an attractive option. Not everyone on the plane will want to sleep, so you don’t want all seats to convert. In order to fit the same number of people in lying as seated, you will need to stack the beds. Stacking two might do it, but stacking three probably works better. Sleeper cars on a railroad are sometimes set up that way, and although I think the ceiling is a little higher than in a plane you should still be able to manage it.
One problem is how to get in and out of bed without having to ask the sleeping person next to you to move. Two solutions occur to me. One is that with beds stacked three deep there might be enough room for a narrow space between each stack and the next sufficient to get out. The other, for a wide body plane, is to have seats in their usual arrangement along the wall, than an aisle, then two convertible seats, then an aisle, possibly repeating if the plane is wide enough. That way every seat is next to an aisle.
There must be a lot of business travelers for whom the benefit of an extra day at their destination would be worth a good deal. No doubt some of them now fly business class. But I expect a lot more would fly tourist sleeper if it was available at a price somewhat higher than ordinary tourist and much lower than present business class fares. As would I.


Bacon Wrapped said...

Your bed suggestion sounds like what most enlisted Navy folks use when at sea.

The inside storage area could be changed to accommodate carry-on luggage.

Someone would likely need a safety/security solution during takeoff, landing and rough skies. said...

You must have been channeling Airbus.
They just filed a couple of patents:

Unknown said...

Your question reminds me of a problem that has often puzzled me. Why are first and business class tickets so very much more expensive?

Air transportation is for the most part a pretty competitive business, so one would expect ticket prices to bear a strong relationship to cost. Surely the cost of transporting a business class passenger is greater than for a coach class passenger. There are better amenities, but I suspect the biggest differentiator is the extra space and fuel required for that space. Let's say that factor is twice as large for business as for coach passengers. Other significant factors (like airport per-passenger fees) grow by less than that.

So, one would conservatively estimate that a business class ticket would cost no more than twice a coach ticket. Yet, observationally the factor is more like 5. Refundability of business class tickets and the like can not explain this. They are both too small and nothing prevents airlines from selling business class seats without these features.

If business class tickets were only twice as expensive as coach, that is how I would fly on my own dime. Surely many other upper-middle class passengers are in the same category. So what is going on? Are the air travel companies leaving hundred-dollar bills unpicked-up on the floor? Or am I missing something?

Shawn Decker said...

I've seen a number of concepts over the years, but my favorite is this stacked and staggered arrangement of individual pods by UK-based Factory Design and Contour Aero (now Zodiac Aerospace).

David Friedman said...

The Airbus design is a nice solution to my problem of getting in and out, but I suspect it would be harder to do it in a way that converted to ordinary seating. One possibility would be to reconfigure part of the plane when it was on the ground--not sure how hard that would be.

Anonymous said...

@Sub Specie Æternitatis

It seems like it might have something to do with the fact that airlines cannot increase their supply of first class seats without also reducing their supply of regular seats - with the number of regular seats lost greater than the number of first class seats gained, since the latter take up more space. Maybe someone with a proper understanding of economics (i.e. not me) could answer this?

David Friedman - am I on the right lines here? Would this factor have anything to do with it?

Unknown said...

@Anonymous: Surely you are right. But even if every business class seat displaced two economy seats, airlines still would find it profitable to do so, even if business class tickets cost only twice as much as economy class tickets.

Power Child said...

Sometimes I wonder if long-distance air travel, at least as currently conceived, is not generally a war with reality in which we've had some initial victories but are very gradually losing. And I'm not sure that's a bad thing.

Anonymous said...

@Sub Specie Æternitatis

Perhaps it also has to do with there being fewer people who would pay double the regular price for a business seat than there are people who will only pay for an economy seat - less than half as many, in fact. So even if two economy seats and one business seat will make just as much money per amount of space, the two economy seats are still a better choice because it is more likely that the airline will be able to fill them.

JWO said...

i have thought a lot about this because it seems to me that you should be able to the same number of people in lying down as sitting up.

BC said...

My first guess is that sleeper seats would not be priced that much lower than business class seats since they would offer much the same value. I assume that people would place much higher value on the sleeper seats than the other amenities in business class.

Airline flights have high fixed costs and zero marginal cost (up until the flight is full), so cost and price have very little relationship. Instead, airlines try to price-discriminate, pricing based on value to passenger. For example, the same seat on the same flight carries different prices depending on whether one stays over Saturday night. Tourists typically stay over a Saturday, business travelers typically do not, and business travelers usually are willing to pay higher fares than tourists. Similarly, it's possible for a multistop ticket to be priced *lower* than one of its legs sold as a standalone non-stop ticket! People will pay a premium to fly non-stop.

I suspect that airlines would be reluctant to introduce sleeper seats at substantial discount to business class fares if there were risk that significant numbers of would-be business class passengers would opt instead for the sleeper seats. Such cannibalization could actually lead to less revenue per flight. They have already introduced "economy plus" seats at the slightly-more-than-economy price point to target affluent-but-still-price-sensitive passengers.

One question that has puzzled me is why more firms that price-discriminate don't try the method that colleges use. For example, why don't airlines offer "financial aid" to low-income passengers to make flying "more affordable"? Judging from the popular political support of college financial aid, doing so would probably actually garner positive PR for airlines. Then, they could substantially raise their pre-aid prices, collect passengers' financial information as part of their "aid application", and charge each passenger the max possible net of "financial aid" once they know how much each passenger can afford.