When Air New Zealand announces a new cabin innovation, the world takes notice. This airline is geographically set apart, with a mindset that also sets it apart, its teams having the confidence to go their own way a little more than some rivals and really push ideas from concept to the skies.
This mindset has resulted in many exciting developments, from the Economy Skycouch, which finally brought a lie-flat solution to coach, to 3D-printed cabin components, to adopting a new approach to safety videos and partnering with tech firms to explore new ways to make operations more efficient and the inflight experience more enjoyable and inclusive. The latest announcement brings in a landmark development in cabin design though: an economy dormitory.
The development has been driven by Air New Zealand’s imminent opening of a new flagship route in September – Auckland to New York – which will shave lengthy connection times as the usual stopover in Los Angeles is removed, enabled by the latest fuel-efficient Boeing 787-9 aircraft. The direct route cuts travel time on this route to around 17 hours, saving at least four hours, and potentially many more. However, that means spending 17 hours in the cabin – palatable in business class, but usually a bleak prospect in standard economy.
The route will initially be served by the airline’s current B787-9s configurations, with 27 seats in business class, 33 in premium economy, 215 in economy, and 13 Economy Skycouches – the innovative triple seats with special legrests that enable the space to be converted into a flat surface after take-off for sprawling or snoozing. It’s a solid configuration for a lengthy route, but it will still see 215 likely grumpy and sleep-deprived travellers descending upon New York.
However, from 2024 the route will be served by something rather different, with the airline’s eight new B787-9s – arriving from 2024 – and a retrofitted current 787-9 fleet having new travel options. The airline has been developing new cabin designs over the past five years in response to customer feedback that they want more space and comfort, and to be able to sleep on long flights. This is hardly surprising feedback, but those simple desires can be difficult to address within the economic and engineering confines of the cabin – especially in economy class. However, as we might have come to expect by now, Air New Zealand has put real effort into meeting those base needs in every travel class, with a range of bold and adventurous new cabin designs. Indeed the team at the airline’s innovation hub, Hangar 22, have invested more than 170,000 hours into the research, engineering and design of the cabins. So what’s in store for Air New Zealand’s ultra-long-haul (ULH) passengers?
Beginning at the front (though it’s the less innovative end of these planes), a new Business Premier seat will be introduced. The current herringbone design will be replaced with a more spacious reverse herringbone model – Safran’s Visa model. This change of cabin layout also creates centre doubles, perfect for couples travelling together as the central divider can be lowered for a shared experience (and raised again if tempers fray during the lengthy journey).
And even closer to the nose of the B787-9 the seat has received a few further design touches, to create Business Premier Luxe, billed by the airline as offering ‘The best sleep in the sky’. This is a space-efficient way for Air New Zealand to offer a top-tier class without incurring the space and service demands of first class (across the Tasman Sea, Qantas’ Project Sunrise has some really top-tier ultra-long-haul options). The eight Luxe suites add a little more personal space, a fully closing door and seating for companion dining – and a few more service and amenity benefits.
Premium economy is likely to be a very popular option on such a long route, even more so nowadays as many airlines are reporting a rise in leisure travellers opting to spend more on their travel experience post-pandemic. A fixed-backshell design will help minimise tensions in the premium economy cabin, ensuring that everyone’s personal space remains their personal space, and the choice of the ZIMprivacy seat from ZIM Aircraft Seating meets the brief.
The seat, also the choice of Lufthansa and Swiss, has a mechanical recline that enables the seat to be moved between several different body positions with the press of a button and application of body weight. And, being fully mechanical, the mechanism is lower maintenance and lower weight than some electrically powered systems.
I tried this model out recently as it was a finalist in the 2022 Crystal Cabin Awards. The mechanism is not as smooth or easily adjustable as an electric system, but it is fairly intuitive. The integrated headrest-cum-privacy shield also helps create a feeling of having one’s own space during flight. The airline is likely to see strong demand for the 52 Premium Economy seats on board its ULH B787-9s.
Economy class: in many flavours
And so to the elephant in the cabin: economy class, the area most feared in ULH travel. The standard economy experience has been enhanced for the 2024 cabins, with more in-seat storage, comfort and space, a 50% larger IFE display, and Bluetooth connections.
A little additional spend gets you into Economy Stretch, with a little extra seat pitch, while opening the wallet a little more brings the fabulous Economy Skycouch into play.
However, something even more interesting awaits 2024’s economy ULH flyers: the Economy Skynest, the world’s first sleeping pods in the sky. These fully-flat bunks were first announced in 2020, but to hear that they really are going to be flying soon is a landmark moment in cabin design.
Available specifically on the airline’s ULH aircraft (not its long-haul fleet), when sleep is desperately needed, time in the six full-length lie-flat Skynest pods can be bought for a portion of the flight. Many expect that the pods will be bookable in four-hour slots: long enough for a refreshing sleep, and short enough to enable a decent customer turnover.
The design has been created following five years of research and development at Air New Zealand’s Hangar 22 innovation centre in Auckland, with the input of more than 200 customers.
“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,” explained Air New Zealand’s chief marketing and customer officer, Mike Tod.
The Economy Skynest is a space-efficient unit, with the six bunk-style pods arranged in a V-shape. The layout gives privacy in the head area, with mood lighting helping create a relaxed feel. The development team have confirmed that each pod will be in excess of 200cm (79in) long and wider than 58cm (23in) at the shoulder area.
Nikki Goodman, Air New Zealand’s general manager of customer experience, says that customer and cabin crew feedback on the Economy Skynest during its final phase of development has been “outstanding, with significant partners also keenly involved”.
“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,” Goodman added.
In time, flyers may be able to experience the design on other airlines, as Air New Zealand is considering licencing the design, as it does with the Economy Skycouch.
Air New Zealand’s head of airline programmes, Kerry Reeves says the scale of the challenge in developing the Economy Skynest and working through its certification with the necessary regulators has been “immense” compared with the development of the Economy Skycouch. However, he describes the economy-class dormitory as “a prize worth chasing, and one that we think has the potential to be a game-changer for economy class travellers on all airlines around the world.”
Reeves added that ‘can do’ is one of the airline’s key values and that the Economy Skynest prototype is a tangible example of this. “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?’”
“Our ability to take a good idea, to execute and deliver an innovation that works in our environment, our market and for our people and customers gives us an edge,” he added.
Another nice touch to make the experience more enjoyable for those travelling in the Premium Economy and Economy cabins is the Sky Pantry self-service snack and drink area, a destination area where customers can stretch their legs and have a chat.
“New Zealand’s location puts us in a unique position to lead on the ultra-long-haul travel experience,” said Air New Zealand’s CEO, Greg Foran. “It’s a proud moment to finally unveil five years of hard mahi [‘work’ in Maori], in what truly is a cabin of possibility. One that will provide customers with options to get some shut-eye wherever they’re sitting.”
“We wanted to offer our economy customers a lie-flat option and that’s how Skynest was born. It’s going to be a real game-changer for the economy travel experience.”
Air New Zealand is fitting its new and existing Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners in two configurations: one for long-haul and one for ultra-long-haul.
The long-haul LOPA will have: 4 Business Premier Luxe, 22 Business Premier, 33 Premium Economy, 213 Economy seats.
Ultra-long-haul will have: 8 Business Premier Luxe, 42 Business Premier, 52 Premium Economy, 125 Economy, six Skynest sleep pods.
A calming cabin
Air New Zealand’s research found that, during travel, the first night away from home is the hardest to get a good night’s sleep, so the team has worked hard to create a sense of calm onboard the B787-9s.
The airline’s chief customer and sales officer, Leanne Geraghty, says the interior design of the cabins is inspired by the uniqueness of Aotearoa (the Māori name for New Zealand), from the forest-inspired carpet, to the seat covers that draw inspiration from New Zealand’s native bird, the Tui.
“Whether we are welcoming visitors or flying New Zealanders home, we want our customers to experience Aotearoa from the moment they step onboard – and get the best night’s rest,” she said.
Everything has been considered with a view to sleep, from the lighting, to calming teas and balms, to healthy food choices and breathable fabrics. Meditative IFE content, titled Zentertainment, will also help customers unwind.
As is expected nowadays, sustainability has been at the heart of the design process. Modern fabrics have been used rather than leather, which the airline says has saved around 1kg in weight for each Business Premier and Premium Economy seat, reducing overall carbon emissions. In the premium cabins, the airline will also switch to serviceware that is 20% lighter, while in economy class, new serviceware enables 28 million fewer plastic dishes to be used inflight every year.
Air New Zealand has done it again, with thoughtful innovation that will enhance the passenger experience, disrupt the market and inspire others. We look forward to bringing you more details.