Last week, Air New Zealand announced in breathless language that they had finally solved the problem of sleeping in economy class. "Air New Zealand will transform international air travel later this year when it introduces revolutionary, Kiwi-designed lie-flat economy" seats, read a company press release. "For those who choose, the days of sitting in economy and yearning to lie down and sleep are gone," said CEO Rob Fyfe. "The dream is now a reality, one that you can even share with a travelling companion..."
It's called the Skycouch.
I pictured myself blissfully sleeping in a six-foot-long, lie-flat surface, either in a sleeper compartment or out in the open with other horizontal passengers. I scrolled, desperately hunting for a photo, or a link, or...
Finally, I thought, an airline has taken the plunge with lie-flat in economy! This will be truly revolutionary!
I scanned the email as confusion set in. Ah, two attachments! I opened the first one, but it was an annoying little thumbnail .jpg of the company's logo. The second one was a design element, sort of like the thingy they paint on the tail.
I blinked at the screen a few more seconds. The wording in the press release didn't make it clear what this lie-flat seat looked like.
I emailed the company, and a very cordial media relations woman responded the next day with a password to the web page where I could view pictures.
Let's see...they should have added that the travelling companion should be "someone you're happy to spoon with in something the size of a compact car's trunk."
Here's how it works: You know how you pull the side lever on a Barcalounger, and the leg rest swings up and rotates you to a reclining posture? Well this ain't that. It does have smaller, similar panels that rotate up from below the three economy seats between the aisle and window, filling the space to seatbacks in front of you. The arm rests rotate up between the seats—nothing new there. Your seatbacks recline a little. (The people in front of you can decide to do the same.) Then you lie down with your companion, your heads toward the window, in a space almost as wide as a twin bed.
And a lot shorter. According to Air New Zealand, the three seats measure 1.56 meters from the aisle to the window, or five-feet-one-inch. I'm almost six feet tall. So "lie-flat" (the wording used in the press release) is good for pre-adolescents, hobbits, and the average woman from Bahrain.
You and your companion each pay about $70 more than for an ordinary economy seat, and half a fare for the third seat.
For a parent traveling with a toddler, it's probably worth the money; with two toddlers, the parent stays upright on the aisle while the toddlers lie and sleep. Still worth the money.
But I'm left wondering when an airline will step forward—helped by regulatory agencies, Boeing, and Airbus—and fit an airplane with couchettes, as on European trains? Not the whole airplane. Just a few seats on some transoceanic flights, with beds about six feet or so. Just try it. Charge a premium and see who's willing to pay. I will. I would sleep on the blessed floor just to lie flat. Lufthansa has yet to move forward with a concept they were considering a couple years ago.
Air New Zealand will offer the Skycouch in the first 11 rows of the economy cabin on a Boeing 777 starting this November.