A plan to put beds on planes

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Beds could soon be coming to the cargo holds of passenger planes. But at what cost?

Airbus recently announced that it has entered into a partnership with Zodiac Aeropsace, a French aviation-equipment company, to develop “lower-deck modules with passenger sleeping berths.” In other words, passengers in need of 40 winks might eventually be able to go below decks to the cargo hold and sleep in bunk beds. The video released by the companies shows a clean, white, modern, and comfortable-looking space, although one conspicuously devoid of windows.

Starting in 2020, Airbus says, the beds will be available on its widebody A330 planes, and could possibly appear on A350s as well. The sleeper modules will be easily swapped in and out, the company promises, so airlines can decide whether to use the hold for cargo or for passengers to get some rest. They can also include areas for the medical treatment of sick passengers, play places for children and meeting spaces.

Few passengers would turn down the chance to sleep in a real bed on a long-haul flight, especially if they are not among the lucky few with partially or fully reclining business- or first-class seats. The question is, how much will this privilege cost? Airbus hasn’t released any details on pricing. But according to the International Air Transport Association, cargo generates an average 9% of airline revenue on combined passenger-cargo flights, more than twice what airlines get from first-class flyers.

So for this to be a worthwhile proposition for airlines they would need to offset that lost revenue, and then some, in order to compensate for the cost and logistics of adding the new class of service. Given that only a fraction of flyers will probably be able to use these beds, it is not hard to imagine something close to a doubling of ticket prices to use them—or, if airlines want to make the beds more attractive, spreading-out those costs among other passengers.

For flyers at the top and bottom of the price hierarchy, the beds won’t make sense. First-class passengers on Korean Air A330s, for example, already enjoy the comfort of a flat bed. And most economy passengers won’t be willing to shell out the price of a hotel room for a few hours on a bunk bed. But for some business travellers, a better night’s sleep might be well worth the extra cost to them or their employers.

Even without Airbus’s announcement, cargo-hold sleeper berths were already on the way. Qantas Airways, which is pushing the limits of long-haul flying, with a new route from Perth to London and possibly another on the way from Australia to Chicago, needs to find ways to make these journeys more comfortable. Its chief executive said last month that beds in the cargo hold were one option. So there is a good chance you’ll soon find yourself on a flight with beds below deck. The question is just whether you’ll find getting some shut-eye on the red-eye worthwhile.

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