Air New Zealand to introduce bed-like ‘pods’ in economy class

The world’s first reclining “capsules” come to the economy class aircraft department near you.

Air New Zealand has been developing its SkyNest concept over the past five years and announced on June 28 that it’s ready for prime-time use – in 2024. The seats are completely flat, made up of real mattresses plus cooling pillows and beds, and are located just behind the plane behind Premium economy cabin. But like everything about aviation today, there are a lot of subtleties in this ad.

First, seats will not be included in the economy ticket price. SkyNests are a separate product, stacked bunk beds three times as high, and can be booked in only four-hour increments—the amount of time the airline has set to allow guests two sleep cycles (usually around 90 minutes), with additional time to calm down and wake up. Each plane fitted to it will contain six of these “capsules,” to be flipped between “sessions” by cabin attendants who sanitize and replace linens in 30-minute cleaning windows.

The additional cost of the SkyNest flat seat has yet to be determined, but it will be available to anyone in Economy or Premium Economy Class. The price will be the same regardless of ticket class, although Air New Zealand has not yet decided whether it will be static or dynamic based on demand or timing in the flight.

Leanne Geraghty, the airline’s chief customer and sales officer, says the final product reflected a lot of customer feedback. “They weren’t shy about telling us our pain points, what worked well and where we could improve,” she explains. She adds that the next stage of customer research will be what people are willing to pay for it.

Another bit of fine print: it’s also a true “first” only if you stick to the definition of “horns”. Air New Zealand already has a reclining option in economy, called the SkyCouch – it allows flyers to extend the specially designed footrests of all three seats in the economy row, to effectively expand these seats and turn the section into a temporary bed. It is very popular with families, who can lie horizontally across a row they book together. But the option can be reserved for a single traveler as well; It costs about $3,000 to book three economy seats from New York or Chicago to Auckland, compared to about $5,000 for a business class seat.

Unlike the SkyCouch, the SkyNest won’t have annoying gaps and high armrests between the seats – plus the mattress will be thicker, since it’s specifically designed to serve as a bed. But you’ll only be able to use it for naps, given the four-hour sessions.

The airline has not yet decided if you can book multiple sessions back-to-back, but chances are that the request won’t allow it; On current configurations of Air New Zealand’s Boeing 787-9 aircraft, there are 248 seats in the Premium Economy and Economy cabin, so nearly as many passengers will be competing for the 18 slots available. (Based on dimensions – beds are 80 inches long – six beds will probably replace about 12 or so seats.)

While travelers who happen to have a class to themselves are welcome to use SkyCouch at no additional cost, Geraghty says SkyNests won’t be provided for free if not used otherwise. Each bed is set up for one person only with no weight limit, and unlike the SkyCouch, no parent will be able to share the bed with their child.

SkyNests will enter service in 2024 on planes serving Air New Zealand’s long-haul, non-stop lines, such as Chicago or New York to Auckland. The direct New York routes, starting in September, will be among the longest flights in the world, taking 17.5 hours. The 15-hour flights will begin from Chicago in October.

It’s all part of an effort to spark interest by making a big list trip to New Zealand. The country has held its international borders open longer than almost any other country and is targeting wealthier and more conscientious consumers while rethinking its dependence on mass tourism. One of the country’s biggest challenges in achieving this is restoring the airlift – convenient and reliable access to flights.

But Air New Zealand is ready to do its part. Not only is the futuristic SkyNest concept being used as a promotional chip to generate near-term interest, but it’s also a good reminder that the airline’s SkyCouch offers a more comfortable way to handle very long flights on its 777 and 787-9.

The carrier is also overhauling cabin amenities as a whole, from business to economy, with lighter-weight designs aimed at lowering carbon emissions — think cloth upholstery in place of leather seats at the front of the plane, or slimmer plates for serving the meal. They may not be glamorous upgrades, but they do reflect the reality of today’s aviation climate in which reduced costs (and most importantly, fuel use) necessarily trump everyone.

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