The web is swarming with the news Air New Zealand will offer a "lie-flat" product in economy (more on the quotation marks/inverted commas in a bit). But is this a surprise? Not really.
The rumour mill for a good year has been humming that Air NZ was looking at a lie-flat product in economy, as well as other innovations for its B777-300ERs due to be delivered in November. Late last year Air NZ itself mentioned at an investors briefing it was looking at a form of a lie-flat product. Back then all we didn't have was the cabin mock-up and photos.
Just three months ago on a post about Air NZ selling empty middle seats, I mentioned the chatter about lie-flat seats in economy. Air NZ's media office quickly sent me a message with a statement from Ed Sims, the carrier's GM.
Here's his key quote:
current speculation about Air New Zealand launching a lie flat economy class bed is misleadingOK, so Air NZ is launching a couch, not a bed.
Semantics aside, it is worth noting Air NZ has been toying about what to do with empty seats. In 2008 the carrier started an offering where, for US$75, a passenger could guarantee the seat next to them would be empty.
Now it's my turn to get picky about semantics. Why the quotation marks/inverted commas around "lie-flat"? Before the announcement, most people would have thought a lie-flat seat would have to take on the form of a seat that somehow becomes flat, like a business class seat--but that could undercut the business class offering.
Instead Air NZ is taking a row of seats and designing it so it can be a "Skycouch". Two passengers can pay a premium to have the third seat be empty. With only two people in the row, the gap between your row and the next row is filled with a seat cushion, so your row becomes a chaise lounge, which you and one other person can sleep on.
You can sleep on a couch but a couch isn't the same as a bed, and an "in-flight couch" won't sell as well as an "in-flight bed". Air NZ itself seems confused about the Skycouch's offering. It is proclaiming "Lie-down in economy now a reality with Air New Zealand". That's lie-down, not lie-flat. But then Air NZ says the seat/couch "has been engineered to create a lie-flat, flexible space". Lie-flat.
Right now this product is all marketing and it's hard to tell what the actual experience will be, although it does look quite promising and appears it will be reasonably priced.
Air NZ is being cautious and is only offering this in the first 11 economy rows of the carrier's 3-4-3 configured 777-300ER. Note the Skycouch will only be for the seats by the windows on either side of the cabin; the seats in the middle will be regular. So that's 11 rows of 6 seats/2 Skycouches. That's 66 seats out of the -300ER's 246. The seats taken up by the Skycouch will account for 27% of Y seats.
One thing's clear: Air NZ has found a way to up the economy experience without poaching its premium economy or business class products. At the end of the day, that's success to both passengers and the carrier.