Robert Silk
Robert Silk

Last month, Air New Zealand did something genuinely unusual in the modern airline industry when it unveiled an innovation that is laser-focused on the comfort of economy passengers.

Economy Skynest, a prototype of which the carrier has now completed, is a six-bunk pod that the carrier envisions deploying on ultralong-haul flights, perhaps beginning with the 17-hour, 40-minute Newark-Auckland service it has scheduled to begin in October. Economy passengers would purchase a bunk for an allotted segment of a flight, allowing them a chance to stretch for a spell at a price that the carrier's head of aircraft operations, Kerry Reeves, told me would cost less than premium economy.

"We think that we have the ability, even if it's subtly, to make life better for economy passengers and bring the rest of the aviation industry and other airlines along with us," Reeves said.

This isn't the first time the carrier has turned its innovation efforts away from the usual beneficiaries, namely premium flyers, and toward its economy cabin. In 2010, the carrier began selling its Economy Skycouch, which enables flyers to transform a row of three seats by extending flaps that tuck underneath the seat. The row then becomes a rudimentary sofa large enough to enable children to lie flat and adults to sleep in a curled position.

Today, China Airlines, Azul, All Nippon Airways and France's Air Austral offer Skycouches under a licensing agreement with Air New Zealand.

It shouldn't be a surprise that the airline, with its remote home base, has emerged as an innovator in economy cabin comfort. Still, the challenges in designing a product like the Skynest shouldn't be underestimated.

The six-bunk pod, Reeves said, has to be equipped with many of the same safety features that are found elsewhere in the aircraft. Think seat belt lights, smoke detectors, emergency lighting and seat belts that are comfortable enough for passengers to wear even as they are stretched out asleep on a mattress.

Then there's the commercial challenges. Reeves said the Skynest would likely replace either five or six economy seats. On an ultralong-haul flight, the carrier envisions selling the Skynest bunks in three shifts. That means the carrier would get a maximum of 18 Skynest purchases to make up for the revenue lost from removing those seats.

Air New Zealand's market research has shown that if the prices are equal, flyers would prefer premium economy to sitting in the tighter confines of economy for most of a flight with a respite in a Skynest bed, Reeves said. Since premium economy on average costs approximately double the price of an economy seat on the airline's flights, that leaves a relatively narrow price gap to work with.

Reeves said the carrier would expect to charge about half the difference between economy and premium economy for a Skynest shift.

The sleepers, Reeves said, wouldn't necessarily have to be revenue accretive to be a success. As long as the Skynest pod more or less breaks even, the carrier could still reap benefits in terms of customer satisfaction and overall brand reputation.

The airline has yet to decide if it will deploy its latest innovation. Still, Reeves said that the outpouring of interest that the product garnered after the February prototype unveiling weighs in its favor. He called that reception, "astronomical, beyond our belief."

The Covid-19 crisis undoubtedly will impact Air New Zealand's calculations, but I certainly hope they are able to give it a try.

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