OPINION: It’s billed as “ground-breaking” and has been three years in the development, but at the end of the day Air New Zealand’s proposed Economy Skynest is basically just a set of bunk beds.
Don’t get me wrong, I think the “lie-flat prototype sleep product”, as the airline describes the beds, is a brilliant idea.
As an insomniac with restless leg syndrome and a bit of a restless disposition in general, I’d happily pay a reasonable amount extra to have my own bunk to stretch out in. And shut myself off from the armrest hogs, incessant loud sniffers and people of questionable personal hygiene who inevitably make their presence felt, heard and smelt on a flight.
I’m not so keen on the whole pay-by-the-hour idea suggested (customers would book an economy seat and use a pod for an allocation session), which brings to mind illicit liaisons in seedy motels though. Anyone else envision the pods, with their privacy curtains, sending Mile High club membership through the roof?
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It just seems ironic that after all the time, money and technical expertise the national carrier – and indeed airlines worldwide – have thrown at making the economy class experience more tolerable, such a simple product might just prove the “game changer” Air New Zealand predicts it will be. Yes, the pods will come with fancy lighting said to help induce sleep and possibly USB points, but at the end of the day they’re essentially airborne, adults-only, versions of the humble bunks many of us slept in as kids.
To hear Air New Zealand’s head of airline programmes Kerry Reeves talk though, you’d think the team at the company’s Hangar 22 innovation centre in Auckland had just reinvented the wheel.The Economy Skynest, he predicts, “has the potential to be a game changer for economy class travellers on all airlines around the world”.
He could very well be right. I just don’t get why no one in the multi-billion dollar aviation industry has come up with the idea sooner, particularly given the popularity of pod hostels and hotels.
It could be a classic case of failing to see the wood for the trees. Or it could have something to do with the fact that, for many years, airlines have benefited from making economy class passengers suffer.
Downsizing seats to make room for a bigger herd in cattle class is a money-making strategy airlines worldwide have adopted. Budget airlines derive particular benefit from making economy passengers uncomfortable. The unhappier they are in their temporary holding pens, the more likely they are to whip out their credit cards to buy water, snacks, meals, and entertainment-loaded tablets. As much to feel human again as to distract themselves from their physical discomfort. For a while there, I wondered just how low they might go, the often-mooted stand-up seat being a worrying portent.
Fortunately, it seems the tide has started to turn. Air New Zealand is one of many airlines working on improving the economy class experience. With competition increasing, aviation expert Irene King noted that airlines “have to keep working at improving product – it’s the only way to stay in the game”.
Social media has made it simple for every dissatisfied passenger with an internet connection to share their grievances with the world (check out Passenger Shaming on Instagram) and if too many say an airline sucks or treated them badly, travellers in all classes are bound to be put off.
Oscar nominee Timothee Chalamet, Prince William and Brangelina are among the public figures who have attracted attention for flying economy, showing it’s not just paupers and cheapskates who travel in the cheap seats. Plenty who travel business class for work, for example, put up with cattle class on personal trips – particularly if they have the whole whānau in tow.
If an airline impresses customers down the back, the more likely the are to keep coming back. And post priceless glowing online reviews.
Most airlines, though, have taken the high-tech route to improving their economy seating or invested in fancier food and drinks.
The sci-fi-looking Air New Zealand Space Seat once offered in some premium economy services, for example, allowed passengers to rotate their seats either toward or away from the person next to them for peace, or privacy or both.
London-based aircraft interior design firm JPA Design, meanwhile, is employing Formula 1 technology to create “seats that are very light, strong and minimal”, founder James Park told CNTraveler in 2019.
“It would release more space for each passenger, while the seat pitch would stay the same, which is far more efficient.”
That’s all well and good but not nearly as wellbeing-enhancing and good as a proper lie-down bed.
Spending a night in a pod hostel in Queenstown in 2018, I initially found my sealed bunk kind of claustrophobic, although this had a lot to do with not being able to stop myself comparing it to a closed coffin. But, the lack of soundproofing aside, it was actually pretty comfy. Certainly a gazillion times more so than a regular economy class seat.
So I wish Air New Zealand the best of luck with getting the Skynest over the line. I’m not sure how economy class passengers are going to endure those nearly 18-hour flights from Auckland to New York otherwise.
Flying cars may still be a pipe dream but, thanks to our national carrier, flying bunk beds might just become a reality in the not-too-distant future.
What do you think of Air NZ’s idea? Let us know in the comments.