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Focus: Air New Zealand’s new seating

17 Apr 2010 by AndrewGough

Air New Zealand’s first Skycouch and premium economy seats destined for the Boeing factory in Seattle rolled off the production line yesterday. Andrew Gough was the first to cast a critical eye over them

Back in January Air New Zealand previewed three new seat designs to a room full of journalists (see online news January 26). The economy Skycouch, an arrangement of three economy seats that convert into a bed, or rather couch, caused arguably the most sensation for those present in Auckland that day, and news of a lie-flat seat in economy spread fast. Some hailed it as an innovation in economy class seating, while others were more critical (see Focus: Air New Zealand’s Skycouch).

But gimmick or not the Skycouch, or Cuddle Class as it later came to be nicknamed, is a reality and Germany’s Recaro is busy putting them into production while Wales-based designer Contour is working hard on the premium economy product. Indeed the first Skycouch seats emerged from a Welsh factory yesterday, and Business Traveller was invited along to ANZ’s London office this morning to see them.

Unfortunately I wasn’t allowed to take pictures of the new seating, with an official launch not for another five months. However, first impressions of both the Skycouch and premium economy seat are that they’re identical in appearance to the Auckland previews. The differences lie in the details, with working tray tables, recline and positions of the IFE and various power ports and audio jacks finalised. After all, these seats have come from the first batch destined for Boeing’s factory in Seattle, where they will be fitted to ANZ’s new fleet of B777-300ERs.

Skycouch and standard economy

At a glance:-

  • Pitch: 33”Air New Zealand Skycouch
  • Recline: 6”
  • Width: 17.1” between arm rests
  • Skycouch width: 29”
  • Skycouch length: 5’11”
  • Connections: USB/110v power (no adaptor)/iPod
  • IFE: 10.6” touchscreen AVOD. Angles downwards by 23 degrees

Lying down on the Skycouch for the first time, I can see why ANZ is loath to call it a bed, but to be fair it’s not far off. Official figures put it at 1.56m long, or 5’11”. I’m just over six feet tall, and lying flat my feet were only slightly off the end of the couch. I would say it was far enough over to risk knocks from wayward service trolleys though. The couch itself was well cushioned and very comfortable to lie on. With an effective bed width of 29 inches (which includes the foot rests that fold up to form part of the horizontal surface), and all three seats at their full six inch recline, it does feel as if there’s a lot of space.

Those lying out on the Skycouch will find it hard to see the IFE screens as they do not come out of the seat backs. Instead ANZ has given them a generous horizontal axis of rotation so that they can be angled downwards by about 20 degrees. The new IFE’s are also the same size as the 10.6 inch screens found in PE, and more than an inch larger than the current economy offering. The IFE is touchscreen, and passengers will be able to order food through an interactive menu, for free and at any time during the flight.

Both Skycouch and standard economy seats will come with USB, 110v power requiring no adaptor and a special iPod connector allowing the Apple device to be accessed and controlled via the IFE. Normally these will be in the seat-back under the IFE, but on the front row or bulkhead seats these are in the arm rests. A narrow trinket tray is found in the bottom of the IFE housing, not big enough to hold a drink but sizeable enough for pens, a mobile phone and a small MP3 player. A cup can be held in the pop-out drinks holder, gimballed like a gyroscope so it can compensate for aircraft tilt.

The new headrests are particularly impressive, and it’s obvious a lot of engineering and thought has gone into them. Each is well padded and can be moved up and down to suit passengers of varying heights, barring the extremely short or tall. They have wings hinged in such a way that they come up and under the chin, and they held my head comfortably. They can also be angled to sit nicely into the nape of one’s neck. There is a separate pillow which fits onto the headrest, though I found it perfectly comfortable without.

Premium economy

  • Pitch: 36”Air New Zealand Premium economy
  • Recline: Fixed shell, equivalent to 9”
  • Width: 20”, not including extra width of retracted arm rest/tables.
  • Connections: USB/110v power (no adaptor)/iPod
  • IFE: 10.6” touchscreen AVOD, mounted on moveable bracket

The pearl-coloured premium economy seats are constructed from injection-moulded Kydex, a type of plastic with a formula specially made for ANZ to reflect cabin lighting, and upholstered in similarly coloured leather sourced from New Zealand.

The official width of the seat is 20 inches, generous in itself, but in sitting in the seat I found that it felt much roomier than that as the raised arm rest/side table can be lowered into the sitting surface allowing for at least six inches extra width. Seat pitch is quoted as 36 inches, which is actually two inches less than the current premium economy product. However because these have a fixed shell, there’s no risk of your personal space being invaded by the person in front reclining his or her seat. As such it’s also hard to say what the recline is, but according to the ANZ spokespeople on hand, it’s equivalent to nine inches. Recline is achieved by sliding the seat pan forwards, but despite this I found that there was still ample room to stretch my legs out into a large foot well under the seat in front.

The IFE is identical that that in economy, but mounted on a moveable bracket. The PE seats also have the same power, headphone, USB and power connections as in economy.

Business Premier

  • Width: 22”, 33” at the shouldersAir New Zealand Business Premier
  • Recline: Fully-flat
  • Bed length: 79.5”
  • IFE: 12.6” touchscreen AVOD on a moveable bracket
  • Connections: Same as economy and PE

The new Business Premier seats are really a rethink of the current seat, on license from Virgin Atlantic, so it wasn’t a great shame one wasn’t on show today. The main difference though, apart from the new colour scheme, is the thicker seat cushioning and the extra mattress which will be made from inch-thick memory foam. According to ANZ, one of the main criticisms of the original VA seat is its firmness when converted into a bed, even with the extra mattress.

Roll-out schedule

The new Skycouch, standard economy, PE and Business Premier seats are now being shipped out to Boeing’s Seattle factory for installation in ANZ’s new fleet of B777-300ERs.

The first of the -300ERs will come into service in December this year on the Auckland-Los Angeles route. However, due to the roll-out schedule of the -300ERs, the first route on which passengers are guaranteed to experience the new seats is the London-Auckland via LA service (NZ001 and NZ002) from April onwards.

Additional design concepts

Among the various design boards adorning the seats’ make-shift showroom was one showing the toilets to be installed on the B777-300ER. Again, no pictures available unfortunately, but they’re best described as looking like something out of Star Trek. Decked in what appeared to be a very hygienic-looking brilliant white plastic, the toilets will feature large mirrors lit by bright LEDs. There also appeared to be two mirrors facing each other on either side of the toilet, creating an infinity illusion that would make the toilet seem enormous. These toilets will be installed throughout the aircraft, from economy up to Business Premier. Also expect unique wall decorations in each different toilet, and mock wood-effect flooring.

Finally, ANZ is toying with the idea of scrapping the traditional material toiletry bags in Business Premier and PE, in favour of boxes which give them the appearance of being gift-wrapped presents. I said it was rather a shame as the current corduroy amenity bags do actually make nice presents. Eye masks may come in a range of collectible print designs, such as the Mona Lisa eyes or a Biggles-style flying mask. No doubt we’ll be after a complete set of those for the office.

For more information visit airnewzealand.co.uk.

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