Do “Lie-Flat” Seats in Business Class Matter?

This morning’s Wall Street Journal reports that airlines are currently rushing to introduce “lie-flat” seats, which can fold into a fully horizontal bed. The travelers in the article say that they sleep much better on a lie-flat seat than a seat that is only “mostly” flat.

I certainly understand the sentiment. I’m a huge believer in the importance of sleep, and I know how challenging it can be to get a good night’s sleep on an airplane—even in business class.

Interestingly, though, research seems to suggest that the difference between fully flat and “mostly” flat is relatively small. In an experiment back in the 1980s, subjects spent one night each in a regular bed, an armchair (resembling a coach seat), a chair which reclined 37° from vertical, and a “sleeperette” (resembling a normal business class seat).

The researchers found that their subjects slept nearly as well in the “sleeperette” and the 37° reclining chair as they did in the regular bed. Only the armchair was noticeably worse. This suggests that the difference between a lie-flat business class seat and a regular business class seat might not be all that great.

Bob Pozen is a Senior Lecturer at Harvard Business School and a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. His latest book, Extreme Productivity, is now available at your favorite local or online bookstore.

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