web Musings of The Global Traveller

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Air New Zealand new longhaul product - the details

After the brief summary yesterday this post will have lots more details of Air New Zealand's revolutionary new longhaul product, which I had the pleasure of attending their launch at Hangar 9 and seeing and trying out the cabin mockup for myself.


For the past three years a small team at Air New Zealand, iconic design firm IDEO and several New Zealand design companies have been plotting a step change in comfort for longhaul flights. They profiled different customer types based on characters from The Simpsons. Frequent flyers are represented by Monty Burns, because we know what we want and have high expectations!

A number of innovative designs have been considered and rejected - bunk beds are currently impractical and staggered seating gives a sense of "crowded isolation". Having flown Emirates A380 in business class with it's staggered seats and experienced the penned in feeling, I'd agree that an economy version would be awful.

Prototypes of the short-list concepts were created and tested by actors. Apparently they can be better trusted not to blab secrets than staff or regular flyers. The products they have settled on are described below and give greatly improved comfort, more flexibility for dealing differently with different types of flyers, and potential for Air NZ to enhance their revenues (more on this later).

Economy class & the sky couch

There are 2 different economy class seats - the regular one, and the sky couch version.

Sky couch is a new variant on the old trick of lying down on an empty row of seats. A large leg rest folds up to add 50% to the length of the seat. 3 seats together thus make a flat couch (arm rests go all the way up) which can fit 2 smallish adults or one adult and a couple of small kids.

Blankets and pillows will be provided. For those who are big or tall the sky couch will be uncomfortable.

While pricing details have not yet been finalised, Air NZ indicated that couples can book the sky couch for a fare of about 50% for the third seat, and families of three can pay a NZ$200 surcharge to get the sky couch. While in theory this sounds good for a parent with two small kids, they aren't buying any extra space, so I am unsure how many will stump up just to get a little bed for their children. For couples, the 50% fee for an empty seat sounds good, but potentially this could be 50% of full fare and not 50% of the discounted airfare most travellers pay. One thing is certain - the cost will be much more than the NZ$75 fee Air NZ currently charges to reserve an empty seat (subject to availability).

Initially there will be 22 sky couches, taking the outside blocks of seats in the first 11 rows of economy. When Air NZ introduced premium economy they took a similarly cautious approach and have since expanded the cabin. I expect the same will happen with sky couches and more will be added later.

The regular economy seat is not much different from the current Air NZ economy seats. Slightly narrower at 17" so they can squeeze in 3-4-3 layout, pitch is similar at 33" and recline is 6". A pillow sits over the winged headrest. Unlike the current seats the arm rests fully fold up.

All the economy seats have personal screens 2" larger than the current model. Due to the larger screen the tray table has a double fold down design (which is convenient for snacks and drinks).

Premium economy class enhanced - new space seat

Enhanced has a negative meaning for some, but the new Air New Zealand premium economy is a genuine improvement. It aligns the seating with the food, beverage and service offering in making the cabin business lite rather than economy extra. Seating switches from 3-3-3 to 2-2-2. Hooray. I see it as a great response to criticism of their current seats (especially in 777-200ER aircraft) as well as a counter to Qantas' premium economy seat which is much more comfortable than the current Air NZ equivalent.

The picture shows an inner pair of premium economy seats, which Air NZ calls space seats. The seats have a shell with much more personal space than any other premium economy seat I've tried. Like the new Cathay Pacific economy seat, the seat slides forward in the shell to provide 9" of recline.

The inner space seats are ideal for a couple. The scallop design means you can sit in the standard alignment, angled out towards the aisle or slide around with back against the shell to face in towards your partner or travelling companion.

The woman's feet are on an adjustable armrest. This can be lowered as shown to make a curved bench seat, higher in armrest mode and higher still to make a little table. In table mode the couple can turn to face each other, although if long legged the space underneath the table is a little small. Note this is additional to the regular table, which means you do not need to put away your laptop or papers while dining.

There are also outer space seats, which are more suited to individual travellers. The basic seat is the same except they are both angled slightly towards the window. The shell then provides a (very small) modicum of privacy by virtue of the small offset within each seat.

All the space seats have one armrest which is fixed and another which adjusts. They all have reading lights as well as big screens. Instead of a normal footrest there is a footwell in the back of the seat in front, with a bean bag to put your feet on for personalised adjustment.

Business class largely unchanged

Business premier is already a world-leader and so only minor changes will be made here. A slightly bigger screen, better padding in the seat and mattress.

Other product changes

All seats will have in seat power supply and USB ports. They've also copied from Virgin America the option to order food and drink through the IFE to make it more efficient and less disruptive to nearby passengers.

New ovens will be installed in the galley so that food is cooked instead of being reheated. Air NZ claims this will allow lighter, healthier food to be provided; although I'm not sure the example burger shown yesterday fits that bill.

The new colour schemes were announced. As hinted with the recent release of new pink uniforms, the colour scheme is similar to Virgin America's one, with dark purple ink and chalk colours predominating.

When can I fly it?

In December this year the first 77W aircraft will arrive with the new product, and will initially fly Auckland to Sydney and also Auckland to Los Angeles as NZ6 (NZ5 in the reverse direction). Over a period of about 4 or 5 months next year the current fleet of 777-200ER will be refitted. The 747 and 767 aircraft will not be refitted with the new product. When it (eventually) arrives, the 787 will have the new product. So, for the next few years Air NZ will have multiple longhaul products which means they need careful management of expectations and their flyers will need to be savvy to avoid disappointment.

Other thoughts

This post is rather long so I'll save my thoughts on revenue generation, effects on frequent flyers and other consequences of Air New Zealand's revolutionary new longhaul product for another post.

You can read Cranky Flier's take on the new product here.

All pictures supplied by Air NZ.


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