What Air New Zealand does not have in size it has in character. While it lacks a 300-plus strong fleet that some airlines have, it has safety demonstration videos that have gone viral. While it lacks the A380 as a mascot, it has smut-mouth Rico. Although Air NZ is small it needs to be big as it is the country's flag carrier.
Quirky safety videos and the quirkier Rico are ways to leverage that objective, but Air NZ's greatest point of differentiation comes online at the end of the year when Air NZ takes delivery of its first 777-300ER, which will have the carrier's new product. Importantly, the product hits where it counts. YouTube videos are fun but do not impact every customer the way the new product will.
So what we can expect from the new product on the 777-300ER? Last month I got to try out Air NZ's new long-haul product when CEO Rob Fyfe brought, with a few able bodies, a set of economy SkyCouch and premium economy seats to his address at the National Aviation Press Club. Also with Fyfe was Air NZ'er Kathy Shepherd who knew so much about the products I asked if she designed them (no, no, she's just been giving demonstrations since February). In the above video Kathy gives a tour of the SkyCouch (my apologies for the poor quality--Air NZ didn't alert us the seats would be present, and I only had my iPhone on me).
First I found about about a few changes to the product since it was announced. Air NZ has removed the front-most row SkyCouch, reducing the number of SkyCouches on the 777-300ER to 20 from 22. (The SkyCouch is only featured in the first economy section on the side seat sections, i.e. not in the centre set of seats.) Kathy says Air NZ took out the SkyCouch from row 36 in order to give elite frequent flyers a seat at the front of the economy cabin without having to pay for a SkyCouch.
During certification the seats had to undergo a few modifications, namely tightening the PTV and arm rests so they did not move as freely (a hazard in a crash).
The first 777-300ER has slipped from late November to early December, but entry into service remains on schedule for April 2011 on AKL-LHR-LAX. Until then, the 777-300ER will fly on ad-hoc trans-Pacific routes.
The heart of the SkyCouch lies in the simplicity of la-Z-Boy chairs: a part of the seat is flush with legs but can be raised upwards to extend the seat, or in this case, form the SkyCouch. See the series of photos below.
Air NZ is targeting these seats at families with small children or two passengers who want a more comfortable seat without flying in a premium cabin. During booking two passengers can pay extra to have the third SkyCouch seat remain empty while passengers in groups of three can pay extra to be seated on a SkyCouch. For a single traveller, it becomes cost-effective to sit in premium economy rather than purchase two empty seats.
On the arm rest the button closest to the seat (see photo, right) releases the seat extension and from there passengers lift the section up with a side handle and then repeat the process for the other two seats. One advantage of this is if a family is travelling with children and the children are sleeping on the SkyCouch, the parent can stay seated normally. See photos below.
To lower the SkyCouch, there's a side handle to release the lock and then passengers will need to push the extension down with their calves.
I found the process of raising , lowering, and locking the extension clunky and noisy. Kathy said these seats were prototypes and the final version will have smoother mechanics, which it will need to be otherwise non-SkyCouch passengers won't enjoy the clanking.
For the ultimate test, I lied down on the SkyCouch. It was not as comfortable as a home couch, but that was to be expected. For aircraft seats the SkyCouch is very comfy. My biggest accolade for them is the flat seat cushion design. If you try to lie down on most economy seats today, your body will experience the humps of the sides of each seat. The SkyCouch doesn't have those, and with no loss: when sitting down normally, the seat is still just as comfortable as any other economy seat.
After trying out the SkyCouch my reaction was these seats lived up to everything Air NZ hyped them to be. But after more poking and prodding my reaction changed: these seats were much better.
What won me over was the detail put into the design. From the get-go Air NZ said it wanted to understand passenger needs and match them. The big picture in economy was having a hard product that passengers could lie down on (or close to it), but the little details also matter. These little details are featured on every standard economy seat and not just the SkyCouch seats.
THE TRINKET TRAY
My favourite feature is what Air NZ calls the "trinket tray", a split-level blue, 1.25 inch wide dish underneath the PTV:
Its purpose is to keep handy small things you'll need in-flight, like a pen (for immigration forms), glasses, and lip balm.
In three out of the three flights I've been on in the past week I've managed to drop my pen and spend a minute awkwardly placing my hand underneath my seat to locate the bugger. During long flights (and Air NZ's network is full of them) I like to sleep without my glasses on but dislike having to carry a clunky case for them. Solution to both problems? Trinket tray.
While the trinket tray is aimed at passenger convenience, it also serves one of Air NZ's less-known aims: creating a calmer cabin with less passenger movement, like passengers getting out of their seats to open an overhead bin to retrieve a pen or other small item that could go in the trinket tray.
LESS MOVEMENT AND MORE IFE
On the subject of less movement, Air NZ has designed the SkyCouch extensions to each support 300lb of weight, which will allow SkyCouch passengers to climb over seatmates without having them shuffle out of the aisle. (Watch Kathy step on the seats in the video at the start.) My only concern is how many passengers will grab the seats in front of them for support, thus annoying the forward-seated passengers.
Also on the subject of movement, the Panasonic IFE system on Air NZ's 777-300ER will let passengers request food and drinks and have flight attendants deliver the items, a la Virgin America's Red IFE system. (As Rico will have you know, it's a touch screen.) The IFE system includes a PTV, USB port (left of the trinket tray), as well as iPod and iPhone (and presumably iPad) connectivity so passengers can watch their own entertainment on the PTV screen, Kathy says.
Each economy seat--although I'm not clear about bulkhead seats--has its own seat power conveniently located on the seat back in front of you (see photo, left). It will be a breeze to charge up with no more fumbling about underneath your seat trying to find the outlet/powerpoint.
To the right of the trinket tray there's also a third port (see below) that Kathy and I could not figure out what it was. Any idea? Paging Mary Kirby...
Once you have that snack or drink ordered from the IFE system you'll need a tray table, and Air NZ has some innovation there too.
NEW TRAY TABLE
Larger PTVs have eaten away at seat-back space, leading tray tables to be folded and hinged. Air NZ also folded and hinged its tray table but bisected the tray table's second half (the part closest to the passenger) into two sections. That gives you choice with how much tray table space you want, rather than the previous all-or-nothing option. That's a boon since personal space is at a premium in economy.
Sticking with the in-flight service theme, let's say all you have is a cup of water and don't need a tray table. Air NZ has a cup holder that extends from the setback to do just that. I first encountered such a device five years ago on an Air France 777-300ER and thought it was great until the person in front of me reclined and my cup of orange juice almost became good friends with my pants. But never fear: there's Kiwi ingenuity at work here. The holder pivots so your cup will stay up right even if the seat in front of you reclines.
LEG ROOM TO THE RESCUE
As you've picked up on, these ain't yo mamma's seat backs. There are a number of features in them but the trade off is space. A folded tray table takes up twice as much width as a single-pane tray table. Fortunately the space lost to bells and whistles--or as close as you can get with moulded plastic--does not eat away at legroom as, you'll see below, the part of the seat directly in front of knees has no extra molding, thus maximising leg room.
SEAT POCKET & POUCH
There's one last seat back innovation down there: a second seat pocket designed to hold water bottles. It's less than half the width of the primary pocket and not as deep or long, but if you, like me, are of the large wattle bottle toting persuasion, the second seat pocket will comfortably accommodate a 1 litre bottle.
NO. 8 PILLOW
One smaller innovation is the pillow, which AIr NZ calls its "Kiwi No 8 wire solution". For those short on Kiwi culture, Kathy explains No. 8 wire is multipurpose (like duct tape, or Windex if you're Greek).Yes, you do the math, this pillow is multipurpose. It can function as a normal pillow or attach to the top of your head rest for extra cushioning there. That latter function gets it out of the way of your limited space, which I greatly appreciate. After I stow my carry-on bag, the first thing I do is take the rectangular airline pillow and put it in the overhead bin. With Air NZ's pillow, I might just use it.
My only disappointments were 1) Air NZ will have a tight 3-4-3 economy configuration, although that is becoming more of the norm on 777s, and 2) (and less substantial) the seat covers. They were a blase cloth black. Virgin America has done black seat covers well, as has AirAsia. The blue trim stands out but maybe a bit too much (although the contrast is good for the trinket tray).
- serious innovation
- attention to detail (e.g. Trinket Tray)
- top-notch IFE with iPod connectivity and in-seat power for every seat
- 10-abreast configuration in Y
- SkyCouch levers too noisy on demo product. How will the final version sound?
- unattractive seat covers
A big thank you to Kathy for her hospitality, knowledge, and patience as I poked and prodded the seats.