Couches in coach: Air New Zealand plans lie-flat seats

Seats that let passengers lie down are coming to the economy cabin.

Air New Zealand says it will introduce this year coach seats that recline into an almost-flat bed for customers willing to pay extra.

The carrier will install the seats in the first 11 rows of the economy cabin for three Boeing 777 planes scheduled to start delivery in November. They’ll fly on the airline’s longest routes, such as Los Angeles-Auckland, New Zealand.

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Each of the seats is equipped with a footrest that can be lifted for a reclining position. Legroom also increases by an inch, to 33 inches.

Individual travelers can buy the seats, but Air New Zealand has designed them chiefly for families or adults traveling together. When all three seats are reclined with the footrests up, they form a flat surface on which two adults can sleep.

Each of Air New Zealand’s new Skycouch seats will cost about $70 more than other economy seats. The company is considering a pricing plan that will cut the price of the third seat by half if two Skycouch seats are purchased together, says Ed Sims, Air New Zealand’s group general manager for international airline. Skycouch seats are available only on window rows.

“For those who choose, the days of sitting in economy and yearning to lie down and sleep are gone,” Air New Zealand CEO Rob Fyfe says.

Air New Zealand’s move is the first by an airline to give economy passengers an option to sleep more comfortably. The economy cabin has been ignored by airlines for years as they spent to upgrade first- or business-class seats that provide higher profit margins.

Delta Air Lines on Monday said it would invest $1 billion over the next 3.5 years to improve lie-down seats for premium passengers and to make upgrades in entertainment options in coach cabins and airport VIP lounges.

“The good stuff is making its way down to coach people,” says Matt Daimler of Seatguru.com. “It’s good for consumers as long as they aren’t coming at a big price increase.”

Daimler says Air New Zealand’s Skycouch may be too short for many customers. “My big issue is the length,” he says. “I’m 6 feet tall and I think I might be crunched a bit in the three seats.”

In designing the seats, Air New Zealand worked with U.S. design firm IDEO and observed passenger behavior using a full-scale mockup of a Boeing 777. It created 30 designs before selecting its final model.

Air New Zealand also is upgrading the premium economy cabin in the 777s, hoping to replicate some comforts of business-class seats.

The new cabin will feature “fixed shell” seats that are popular in other airlines’ business-class sections. Each seat will be equipped with a shell that lets passengers recline without the seat back leaning back. Cushions affixed within the chair’s shell frame move forward and downward when passengers recline.

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