Air New Zealand aims to put economy travellers to sleep with new lie-flat prototype sleep pods concept

27 February, 2020

A huge investment is continually made by airlines in their premium cabins, but the same cannot be necessarily be said about the Economy cabins at the back of aircraft, where innovations have been mainly limited to tweaks to seat comfort and design, in-flight entertainment and connectivity and the service offer.

For many airlines the investment simply does not add up in the cabin. But, Air New Zealand is not like many airlines as it has previously proven with its skycouch concept that converted a standard row of three economy seats that through special footrests into a single bed-like surface that allowed users to stretch out and snooze.

'Can do' is one of the airline's key values, according to its head of airline programmes, Kerry Reeves and it is that mentality that now brings the innovative Economy Skynest prototype which will provides six full length lie-flat sleep pods into the economy cabin space.

Such a concept has been among designs highlighted at aircraft interiors shows previously and has been successfully incorporated into trains and cruise ships. However, adopting, installing and certificating such a product for an aircraft is more of a challenge.

Air New Zealand's design - of which it has now filed official patent and trademark applications for - is the result of three years of internal research and development, with the input of more than 200 customers at its Hangar 22 innovation centre in Auckland.

"At Air New Zealand, we continue to nurture a can-do attitude, we're not afraid of being bold and trying new things. The question is never 'can we do this' but instead 'is it right to do this for our customers?' and, if so, 'how will we do this?'," Ms Reeves explains.

The product is another that is born from the growth of ultra-long-haul travel. Air New Zealand's South Pacific rival Qantas is exploring similar innovations as it attempts to redesign the flying experience to support its planned Project Sunrise flights linking Sydney to London and New York.

For Air New Zealand, it is its upcoming Auckland-New York service, which will have a flying time of up to 17 hours 40 minutes one way that has pushed its attempts of "putting more magic back into flying," explains its chief marketing and customer officer, Mike Tod.

"We have a tremendous amount of development work underway looking at product innovations we can bring across all cabins of the aircraft. A clear pain point for economy travellers on long-haul flights is the inability to stretch out. The development of the Economy Skynest is a direct response to that challenge," he says.

Right now the product is merely a concept. Air New Zealand hasn't yet decided on the exact positioning of the Economy Skynest within the aircraft, except it will be housed in the Economy cabin. The airline will make a final decision on whether to operate the Economy Skynest next year after it has assessed the performance of its first year of Auckland-New York operations.

However, the initial development stage has delivered some strong feedback for the product which will offer a length of in excess of 200cm and a shoulder width of 58cm. The airline's general manager of customer experience, Nikki Goodman says customer and cabin crew feedback has been outstanding with significant partners also keenly involved.

Air New Zealand says it is intended that each pod will include a full-size pillow, sheets and blanket, ear plugs along with privacy curtains and lighting designed for sleep. It is exploring other features such as separate reading light, personal device USB outlet and ventilation outlet.

"We see a future flying experience where an economy-class customer on long-haul flights would be able to book the Economy Skynest in addition to their Economy seat, get some quality rest and arrive at their destination ready to go. This is a game changer on so many levels," says Ms Goodman.

The term 'game changer' is being increasingly used to describe latest industry innovations. This certainly represents a significant development for a cabin that has seen little obvious change in decades, but whether it can defined as a 'game changer' only time will tell.

This will likely be measured in demand from other airlines who may wish to the license the product as has been the case with the Economy Skycouch. But, what it is clear, is that if it is indeed incorporated into future ultra-long-haul aircraft it will deliver a new option that offers significant improvements to long-haul economy flying.