Bloomberg-- Lie-flat seats ... in coach? It’s possible, says Air New Zealand, which on Tuesday announced a new economy-cabin concept to be piloted on flights between New York and Auckland starting this October. The new route is the first-ever nonstop between the two cities, taking roughly 16 to 18 hours.
Economy Skynest, the latest prototype to stem from the airline’s Hangar 22 innovation center, builds off the success of the airline’s Economy Skycouch, which allows families to transform a row of three economy seats into a single full-size bed.
If Skycouch is like a futon, Skynest is a small Pod Hotel, with two parallel sets of bunk beds stacked three high. Each mattress will be about 6.5 feet long and 23 inches wide at the shoulder, tentatively fitted with a privacy curtain, full-size pillow, blanket, sheets, and earplugs.
Skynest’s exact position within the cabin is yet to be decided—as is the exact date of its first flight. Its specifications are also subject to change. But according to a statement from the airline’s general manager of customer experience, Nikki Goodman, “an economy-class customer on long-haul flights would be able to book the Economy Skynest in addition to their economy seat, get some quality rest and arrive at their destination ready to go.”
Price and logistics are similarly up in the air, such as if guests can book the pod for an entire flight or just segments. A spokesperson said it’s more likely to be reserved for single-use sessions of a still-to-be-determined length. That would make the product accessible to more passengers per plane load and lower the price threshold, though it would raise questions about cleaning in between uses. “There is still work to be done on design development and the team is reviewing the commercial feasibility of having the product onboard,” explained the spokesperson over email.
The bar for innovation in cattle class isn’t particularly high. In 2018, Airbus released renderings that showed bunk beds in the cargo hold; this January, a competition called the Crystal Cabin Awards received submissions that allowed economy seats to face one another (like on a train) or to be installed around a communal table (like in a coffee shop). Those came from a Hamburg-based design group and the University of Cincinnati—not from airlines. Perhaps the biggest back-of-plane innovation as of late was Delta’s addition of cocktails, hot towels, and better food to its international economy offering. That hardly compares to a lie-flat bed.
So why focus on the lowest-paying customer?
“Our ability to take a good idea, to execute and deliver an innovation that works in our environment, our market, and for our people and customers gives us an edge,” said Air New Zealand’s head of airline programs, Kerry Reeves.
But just as important, it offers a patentable and trademarkable product that can be licensed to other fleets around the world. (Skycouch, for instance, has been licensed by China Airlines and the Brazilian carrier Azul.) Consider it your latest hack into business class—if only on a very limited basis.