Air New Zealand thinks THIS is an economy seat? (with video)

Well, Premium Economy, at least. But we’ve sat in Business Class seats that weren’t this comfortable.

Apparently Air New Zealand has a larger proportion of leisure passengers than other international airlines, so they’ve focused more of their efforts on enhancing the Economy and Premium Economy cabins. We covered the upcoming changes to the Economy section, including the option for passengers to choose the new Skycouch layout when booking their trip, but the Premium Economy redesign may be an even bigger story. It’s surely going to cause other airlines to take a fresh look at their offerings.

Air New Zealand currently offers a Premium Economy cabin that offers a larger selection of meal options at a much higher quality, nearly approaching the level of service seen up front in their Business Premium cabin. It’s likely one reason they were awarded ATW’s Airline of the Year for 2010. But they don’t seem ready to give up the title for 2011.
Space Seats

With their new Premium Economy “Space Seats” which enter service in November of 2010, the airline has managed to match their seats to the enhanced meal service. The combination could even rival the business class sections of other airlines.

Premium Economy passengers can reserve a seat based on their requirements for privacy or if they’re traveling with a partner, they can choose a more social arrangement. They do this by installing two different types of seats in the Premium Economy class.

Inner Space

The center seats face outward at a 23 degree angle and are called “Inner Space.” The two armrests in the middle of these seats can be lowered to create nearly enough room for a third person to sit, which could be helpful for a family flying with an infant.

With the armrests up, two people could share a meal or play a game of cards on the center console, with room for at least one person’s legs to fit underneath, like a small table.

Outer Space

The “Outer Seats” also point at a 23 degree angle and face the windows. With the new, larger 787 windows that are coming-depicted in the mockup pictures-these seats will be perfect for those who enjoy looking out. It felt a little like sitting on the front porch in a chair while taking in the view.

Another improvement over the current Premium Economy is the ability to recline without impeding anyone else’s space. And when the person sitting at the window is ready to get up, there’s enough room for the passenger at the aisle to pivot their legs to allow access. The seat width is now three inches wider at 20 inches, but there’s no obstruction, such as a fixed armrest on either side of the seats, so it feels even wider.


“Otto” Pilot

Since there are now foot rests built into the seats, a stuffed foot rest that Air New Zealand has coined “Otto” which is short for ottoman will be provided. Ed Sims, the project manager on this effort remarked, “We readily anticipate that these will get stolen in huge numbers.”

Just like the rest of the cabin, Premium Economy will feature snacks on demand which allows a passenger to order complimentary drinks or snacks in between meals via the in flight entertainment screen.

The IFE screen is a pull-out, 10.6″ screen that provides more content than the current 8.4″ system, such as an expanded range of kids shows, exclusive offerings and a viewers recommended section. Applications such as hourly updated weather will be featured on the new graphical user interface that was designed by Air New Zealand.

A USB port or iPod connector will allow passengers to view their own content they may have brought with them. This will also be offered in the standard Economy class as well. No word on device compatibility, but the iPod and iPhone are sure to be on the list.

While looking at the innovative seats for each cabin, I couldn’t help but wonder where I’d prefer to sit. I suspect it will come down to who I’m flying with. If I were traveling with just my wife, the center, or “Inner Space” seats in premium economy would be preferable.

If we brought along our two kids, I’d love to try the two standard Economy center seats for us while the kids could take up the outer Skycouch seats for sleeping.

And if someone else is paying for the trip, well, there’s just no other option than to give the Business Premier cabin a try. Because if they consider these seats to be just a step up from their regular Economy seats, then wait until you see what they’ve done with their Business Class seat. We’ll have a review for you next week.

Gadling was briefed on the Space Seat prototype Tuesday at the Hangar 9 facility in Auckland, New Zealand. See it for yourself: