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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Air New Zealand new long haul - Economy skycouches

The big news has been the announcement of the skycouches in economy. However, it is worth reviewing the total hard product that has been announced.

First, beyond the hype about the Skycouch is the rest of the cabin.

Seat pitch (distance between rows) is one inch LESS compared to the 747 fleet, but one inch MORE than the 77E fleet. Given the product is for aircraft replacing 747s, this is a minor, but noticeable step backwards.

Seat width is between 0.5 and 0.8 inches less than the 747 and the 77E fleet. With an extra seat squeezed into a cabin that is currently 3-3-3 as the industry standard in economy, Air NZ is putting itself in league with other width thieving airlines like Emirates and Air France/KLM.

In other words, it isn't a step up for those NOT in skycouches.

Secondly, it looks like arm rests will finally be able to be folded fully back between seats, so passengers with a spare seat beside them will be able to stretch out, even if it is not a skycouch.

The Skycouch itself is in the first 11 rows of economy on the window sides only, and appears to involve an extension of the seat base so that a flat couch surface can be established across three seats. It wont be available in the middle three seats, presumably because there is no convenient surface for passengers to rest their heads. Clearly the ability to do this is a step change in flying economy class, because it will allow passengers to fly in a Z position (it wont be long enough to be fully stretched unless you're quite short).

So who might be able to do this? Well it is clear that it is aimed at couples who buy two economy seats, and can pay half price for the third seat. Whether individual travellers can do the same is a good question, although it would be cheaper to buy premium economy seats, the question is whether it is better to get the flat surface than the reclined one of premium economy.

For couples this makes a serious difference, for a premium that is a fraction of paying for both to go premium economy, let alone business premier, they will be able to lie flat. Compared with the small recline available in economy usually, this is a different world for most tourists. For those travelling together who aren't so "intimate" it might be less compelling.

NZ has anticipated the biggest risk of the whole idea - the mile high club. The press release states:

"For those who choose, the days of sitting in economy and yearning to lie down and sleep are gone. The dream is now a reality, one that you can even share with a travelling companion - just keep your clothes on thanks!"

The big question will be whether enough will do that to justify setting aside such seats. If they get filled up regularly, it will have made a difference, as long as the pricing makes it more profitable than the average loading across three seats.

Air NZ will be keen to avoid it cannabilising revenue in the front cabins. I suspect that is why exact details on pricing, and whether Airpoints upgrades might include this option, will wait until April 2010.

Seat recline is the industry standard 6", without hard shell designs it will encroach somewhat on the skycouch area.

So in summary, for couples willing to pay this product offers a seriously improved alternative that puts Air NZ beyond all others in economy. For everyone else, it is a small step backwards, although other product improvements (entertainment, catering) are positive.

It is worth noting there remains nothing equivalent to NZ's Space +, which is available on the 767 and A320 fleet.

It is fair to say NZ has successfully generated enough hype and publicity about its new cabin to offset the negativity, but don't forget, a maximum of 44 people will benefit from the Skycouches. 180 will be getting less width and legroom that they do today on the 747s.

Verdict: The Skycouch has to be a winner in attracting business, differentiating the product and increasing yields. I suspect it will take couples business away from premium economy, as a flat surface for two is better than reclining for two. For everyone else, it wont make much of a difference, but if you wanted legroom and seat width, it will be tighter. A for Skycouch a D for everyone else.

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