Coach cabin revolution — Air New Zealand adds beds in economy

Innovation may have played a part in Air New Zealand’s eight-year quest for renewed profitability.

As Kathryn Gregory, director of marketing for the Americas region recently said, “We like to look at what the other airlines are doing in their marketing and then… don’t do that.”

If you’ve been keeping track of the Air New Zealand inflight safety demo and their recent matchmaking flights, it’s clear that they’re setting their own course while keeping the brand edgy and fresh.

But the company knows that it’s not all just marketing and promotions. Their inflight product needs to maintain the quality that recently earned them the coveted ATW Airline of the Year award.Air New Zealand currently offers a Premium Plus Economy seating that doesn’t stop at just a few more inches of legroom for the front part of the coach cabin. Dining options are also enhanced to mirror more of the business class meals on their long-haul service and it’s been very well received.

And two years ago, the airline added in-flight concierges who can assist everyone with their onward flight arrangements, itineraries they may wish to adjust at their destination, scheduling issues with weather disruption and managing their frequent flyer miles. This even includes passengers traveling in economy.

At a time when airlines strive to be just a smidgen better than their competition, it would seem Air New Zealand could rest easily with their comfortable lead over other airlines.

But Roger Poulton, vice president of the Americas for Air New Zealand, said that to stay ahead, it was important to forgo some of the standard Boeing options in aircraft seating and to spend the time and money needed to design their own product. They also realized that Economy and Economy Plus passengers shouldn’t be forsaken and that families flying together represented a large portion of their passengers.

A TOP SECRET THREE YEAR PLAN

It took years, but the results not only put Air New Zealand in the front of the industry but also might just change how other long-haul airlines look at the coach cabin in the future. Knowing that if word got out about their plans they would lose part of their lead, they’ve secretly been working on a new layout that has finally been revealed to the public.

The coach seats have been completely re-designed by Recaro, including eleven rows of three seats on each side of the cabin dubbed “Skycouches” that are available for families and couples who want the ability to buy an entire row. Couples who buy the third seat will only play need to pay half the price for the third seat.

Interior seats will not be able to convert to a Skycouch.

While it’s still not possible to stretch your legs out straight without them extending into the aisle, the Skycouch design will likely be very popular for economy travelers and especially for families traveling together. Parents could purchase two seats in the center of the cabin, and then a row of three across from them where the kids can lay out and sleep.

Internally at Air New Zealand, they’ve referred to the Skycouch seats as “Spoon Seats” since the design lends itself well to that sleeping position for couples.

To convert the seat, a button in the armrest allows you to pop up the modified footrest. It’s then necessary to snap the rest into place, making for a solid bed when all three are in place. The design is stressed for three hundred pounds, and it has a rather solid feel. The seat cushions align perfectly with each other, providing for a very smooth surface to stretch out on.

A foot net provides for more comfortable leg position options, presumably so your feet don’t impede the aisle.

Every economy seat will have an improved ‘sleep pillow’ headrest and PC power, USB and iPod connections.

A new feature has been added throughout the cabin, called Snacks on Demand, which allows passengers to order more food using the inflight entertainment screen in between the three course meal service.

After meals are served from the redesigned galley, ‘onboard events’ will be offered, including wine tasting, a destination seminar or kids story time using the 23″ mounted galley monitor. This area was modified to avoid looking like a kitchen and more like a lounge area where passengers can help themselves to snacks and drinks.

These changes apply to the new Boeing 777-300 aircraft that are being delivered starting in November of this year. Initially the Auckland to Los Angeles flight will see this aircraft and eventually this reconfiguration will make its way to other aircraft in the long-haul fleet.

Gadling had the opportunity to see the new seating configuration up close during the unveiling in Auckland at a building that had to be well hidden from the local press who have been relentlessly trying to learn details about the rumored seating changes. Recaro will be building the seats in Fort Worth, Texas.

If the prying media had only known that the building where the design work was being done was just two blocks from the Air New Zealand headquarters. The location was obvious on the morning of the event, when a huge sign that said “Hangar 9″ and featured the Air New Zealand logo was unveiled and gave away the secret location.

Group General Manager, Ed Sims said that while the Skycouch experience is owned by Air New Zealand, other airlines that aren’t competing directly with the company would be able to license the design. He mentioned that when Boeing first viewed the work they’ve accomplished at Hangar 9, the airline manufacturer was convinced that this represented the future of air travel.

Initially, the company was working on a staggered seat design. They were pretty sure the offering would be a successful way to give people more room, but when they tested the mockup with focus groups, they found people uncomfortable with the lack of privacy from the people just behind or in front of them. There was a sense they needed to watch their belongings more and that people could see everything they were doing.

It wasn’t just Air New Zealand’s work in economy cabin that is going to change air travel. They have also redesigned their Premium Economy seats, creating a solution for passengers who want more privacy while at the same time satisfying those who prefer to sit together as a couple. Be sure to check out our video from the unveiling to see the Skycouch in action.

The pride in the new corporate culture at Air New Zealand is evident in every employee that we came across, from the flight attendants to management. They’re exceedingly proud of their country and many of the flight attendants told us they felt they had a responsibility at Air New Zealand to represent their country as well.

With this revolutionary design, it has become much easier for families to experience the Kiwi culture in person on what could be a restful twelve hour flight from Los Angeles or San Francisco to Auckland.

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