Antipodean airline Air New Zealand is known for  innovative seat designs, which have included the so-called Skycouch that lets travelers in coach stretch out and cuddle on long-haul flights. But the airline is taking that idea to the next level with the unveiling of a revolutionary new lie-flat seat prototype for passengers flying in the back of the plane.

Dubbed the “Economy Skynest,” the new cabin section is the culmination of input from hundreds of passengers and three years of research and development at Air New Zealand’s Auckland Hangar 22 innovation center. 

The Economy Skynest will consist of a mini sleeper cabin with three bunks on each side of a narrow aisle plus a stepladder to access the two top beds on either side. Details are still scant, but it should be located somewhere in the coach cabin and each bed should be over 58 cm wide (22.8 inches) and 200 cm long (78.7 inches) long. Passengers who book a bed can expect a full-size pillow, sheets, a blanket, ear plugs and privacy curtains as well as lighting options designed to help travelers sleep. The airline is still exploring options like putting in reading lights, air nozzles and personal USB outlets. Passengers would still fly in normal economy seats, but be able to use the Skynest to sleep during some portion of the flight.

Before you get too excited, Air New Zealand does not have any concrete plans to actually put the Skynest on its planes and will make a final decision about whether to do so next year after it has evaluated the performance of its new longest route from Auckland to Newark, which is set to launch in October 2020 using a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner.

That route is blocked out at a whopping 17 hours, 40 minutes, and is one of the reasons Air New Zealand began investigating lie-flat seating options in economy in the first place. It should be noted, though, that the airline already operates flights as long as 16 hours and 30 minutes between Auckland and Chicago, so the new design could be applicable to the airline’s other long-haul operations. 

“A clear pain point for economy travelers on long-haul flights is the inability to stretch out,” said Air New Zealand chief marketing and customer officer, Mike Tod. “The development of the Economy Skynest is a direct response to that challenge.”

While many airlines have focused on the long-haul premium experience with innovations like designing suite-style seats with closing doors in business class and creating lounge-like spaces on board where passengers can pass the time working or enjoying meals and entertainment, the experience in coach has not much changed in the past decade. Passengers in back are still squeezed in nine or ten abreast with limited legroom and recline, and uninspired dining options. 

Air New Zealand clearly sees that differentiating its economy cabins – the class where the vast majority of travelers fly – as a way to woo potential customers. According to the airline’s general manager of customer experience, Nikki Goodman, “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.” 

If the model proves to be successful, Goodman even suggested the airline might be willing to license the design to other carriers. While still in the initial conceptual phase, the Economy Skynest could be an exciting new development in the economy travel space. At the very least, it should get other carriers that operate extensive long-haul networks thinking seriously about ways to improve the coach experience. Perhaps we will even see additional upsell options like letting coach fliers purchase business- or first-class meals, or better bedding, all in a bid to ease the stress and exhaustion of flights that are only getting longer. 



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