World’s 1st lie-flat ‘pods’ ready in 2024

THE world’s first lie-flat “pods” are coming to an economy class airplane section near you.

Air New Zealand has had its SkyNest concept in development for the past five years and announced on June 28 it’s ready for prime time — in 2024. 

The seats are fully flat, made up with real mattresses plus cooling pillows and bedding, and located in the back of the plane, right behind the premium economy cabin. But like everything to do with flying today, there’s loads of fine print on this announcement.

First, the seats won’t be included in the price of an economy ticket. SkyNests are a separate product, bunk beds stacked three high and bookable only in four-hour increments — the amount of time the airline has determined it takes to allow guests two sleep cycles (which are typically about 90 minutes), with additional time to wind down and wake up. 

Each aircraft being fitted with them will have six of these “pods”, to be turned around between “sessions” by cabin attendants who sanitise and replace the linens in 30-minute cleaning windows. 

The additional cost of the SkyNest lie-flat seat has yet to be determined, but it will be available to anyone in economy or premium economy. Pricing will be the same regardless of class of ticket, although Air New Zealand hasn’t yet decided whether it will be fixed or dynamic based on demand or timing within the flight.

“It’s been 170,000 hours of design, constant evolutions of small and large design developments, tweaks and engineering feats to get to where we are,” says Leanne Geraghty, the airline’s chief customer and sales officer, who says that the final product reflected loads of customer feedback. “They weren’t shy to tell us what the pain points were, what worked well and where we could improve,” she explains. 

The next phase of customer research, she adds, will revolve around what people are willing to pay for it.

Another bit of fine print: It’s also only a true “first” if you stick to the definition of “pods”. Air New Zealand already has a lie-flat option in economy, called the SkyCouch — it allows fliers to extend specially-designed footrests from all three seats in an economy row, to effectively widen those seats and turn the section into a makeshift bed. 

It’s extremely popular with families, who can lay horizontally across a row they’ve booked together. But the option can be booked for a single traveller, too; booking three economy seats from either New York or Chicago to Auckland costs around US$3,000 (RM13,220), compared to around US$5,000 for a seat in business class.

In contrast to the SkyCouch, the SkyNest won’t have pesky gaps and raised armrests between seats — plus the mattress will be thicker, since it’s purpose-built to serve as a bed. But you’ll only be able to use it for naps, given the four-hour sessions.

Air New Zealand already has a lie-flat option in economy, called the SkyCouch, which is extremely popular with families

The airline hasn’t decided yet whether you can book multiple sessions back to back, but chances are that demand won’t allow for it; on current configurations of Air New Zealand’s Boeing 787-9s, there are 248 seats in the premium economy and economy cabins, so nearly that many passengers would be vying for the 18 available slots. (Based on the dimensions — the beds are 80 inches long — it’s likely the six bunks would replace some 12 or so seats.) 

Whereas travellers who happen to have a row to themselves are welcome to use the SkyCouch at no extra cost, Geraghty says SkyNests won’t be made available on a complimentary basis if they’re otherwise going unused. Each bed is made for just one person with no weight limit, and unlike a SkyCouch, a parent won’t be able to share a bed with their child. 

SkyNests will go into service in 2024 on aircraft serving Air New Zealand’s ultra-long-haul nonstop routes, such as Chicago or New York to Auckland. The direct New York routes, starting this September, will be among the world’s longest flights, taking 17.5 hours. The 15-hour flights from Chicago will begin in October.

It’s all part of a bid to stoke interest in making the big, bucket list trip to New Zealand. The country held out on opening its international borders for longer than almost any other and is targeting a more affluent and conscientious consumers as it rethinks its reliance on mass tourism. Restoring airlift — convenient and reliable access to flights — is one of the country’s largest challenges in making that happen.

But Air New Zealand is ready to do its part. Not only is it using the future SkyNest concept as a promotional chip to stoke interest in the nearer term, it’s also a good reminder that the airline’s SkyCouch does offer a more comfortable way to handle ultra-long trips on its 777 and 787-9 aircraft.

And the carrier is also overhauling its cabin amenities as a whole, from business all the way back to economy, with lighter-weight designs that are meant to cut back on carbon emissions — think fabric upholstery instead of leather seats in the front of the plane, or slimmer dishes for meal service. They may not be glamorous upgrades, but they reflect the reality of today’s aviation climate in which shrinking costs (and importantly, fuel usage) necessarily trump all. — Bloomberg / Pics source: Air New Zealand