Kiwi carrier Air New Zealand will take delivery of its first B777-300ER, fitted with new business, premium economy and economy Sky Couch products, on Christmas Eve.
ANZ's CEO Rob Fyfe will be on the inaugural flight from Boeing's headquarters in Seattle on December 22 to Auckland (via LA), where it will touch down on December 24. It will be the first time the carrier's new seating will have been experienced by paying customers, and the industry will be keen to see if the Sky Couch – which allows economy passengers to recline horizontally – is a success.
If it is, the likelihood is other airlines will be queuing up to license the seats, which are being manufactured in Dallas Fort Worth by Recaro. "Being a relatively small airline from a small country, innovation is at the heart of our business," says Fyfe, a CEO who is known for his sense of humour and, at times, somewhat outlandish business practices. (Remember when he bared all for the summer 2009 ANZ advertising campaign where crew wore nothing but body paint?)
"The challenge I set was to find a way to allow economy passengers to sleep, without changing the configuration of the cabin or changing the dimensions of the seat," says Fyfe. He also says he wanted to deliver the best aircraft any airline has ever seen. ANZ's group general manager Ed Sims says: "It was a ridiculous ambition but very motivating for the team."
The initial idea was to launch the new seats on the B787 but because of on-going delays, it was decided that they would be fitted to the carrier's new B777-300ER instead, the first of which will be serving Auckland to Melbourne/Brisbane and LA from Christmas. A second will start on the London route via LA from April 2011, with three more planes on order.
At the beginning of the project four years ago, the team of two designers, two engineers and two marketers were presented with a series of challenging questions to consider before work began on developing the new products. Sims says: "They asked us things like, 'Why do all airline seats face forwards? Why do 14 crew all do identical jobs? Why, if you enter a five-star hotel, would you not enter through an industrial kitchen? How do Riva Yachts, Six Senses Spas, and W hotels design their customer experiences? What are our competitors offering?'
"They were forcing us to think about in-flight experiences we had never thought about before so we focused on the seat from which point you can then build on the IFE [in-flight entertainment] and food. We got specialists in ergonomics and asked them to design the best piece of furniture they could, even though they had never worked on aviation seats.
"Then we thought about our core customer values – sociability versus anti-sociability. Most passengers experience economy – they have purchased the real-estate of their seat but nothing else. Even the galleys and washrooms are unwelcoming – crews use galleys as a place to gossip and, as we discovered in a survey, the majority of women put their shoes back on before going to the washroom on an aircraft.
"We also found that people go to the washroom around 40 per cent less frequently when the IFE is on-demand because they are not fixated on the queue that will form at the end of a film. So we wanted to give them more control over their journey, more variety in product, free them from the physical and emotional restraints of their seats, give them more 'New Zealandness', and respectful but genuine service."
The second stage of the design process saw the team, which grew to 60 people at the busiest times, come up with five possible seats for each cabin class, and these included staggered 3-3-3 economy seating that gave every passenger a great deal more legroom (but meant the middle seat in each set was on its own) and bunk beds in premium economy. But as Sims says, "We had to fall out of love with most of them", adding, "It's much harder to give up concepts than to come up with them in the first place".
The facility (known as Hangar Nine) in downtown Auckland where all this was going on was formerly a cheese shop, and until fairly recently what was happening inside was a closely guarded secret. Consumer control groups who came to test the seats often arrived in disguise and efforts were made to avoid attracting the attention of the neighbours, as the potential value of the intellectual property was huge.
But since the unveiling, Hangar Nine now acts as a showroom for the project, and inside visitors can see a mock-up of the interior of a B787 equipped with the seating that they decided on. The new standard economy seats will be configured 3-4-3, have a 33-inch pitch, 17-inch width, six-inch recline and 10.6-inch Panasonic seat-back screens. In a bid to make sitting in them more comfortable, movable headrests and detachable pillows have been put in place.
The Sky Couch – composed of three adjacent economy seats with the option of lifting up the manually operated legrests (reinforced to support up to 140kg) to form a fully-flat relaxation area flush with the seat in front – will have a length of 61-inches. Seatbelts have been extended so those lying down can be secured safely during turbulence, and each couch – priced at the equivalent rate of 2.5 standard economy seats – also comes with a sheet, two blankets and two pillows.
The new space-age looking cream leather premium economy seats (2-2-2) have been built by Contour and feature 36 inches of legroom, a 20-inch width, a nine-inch recline, a 10.6-inch screen and bean bags known as "Ottos" to rest your feet on. The airline hopes these seats will be considered a great improvement to those currently offered by other carriers. Sims says: "When we were looking at premium economy, Boeing showed us all the existing products on offer at its facility in Seattle, but I was not interested in any of them – they were all rubbish."
Business Premier is in Virgin Atlantic's herringbone layout (1-2-1), with seats (also manufactured by Contour) converting into fully-flat beds with a 22-inch width, 81-inch length and 12-inch screens. While these are not significantly different to the fully-flat product ANZ already offers, the white leather (as opposed to brown) upholstery looks fresher, side storage panels have been made bigger to fit a laptop, memory foam mattresses have been made thicker and pillows larger.
Premium passengers will also be able to order à la carte meals cooked in state-of-the-art induction ovens (as opposed to convection ovens) and even fresh toast, prepared in a specially designed toaster that has been certified for use in the air. So why hasn't this been available before? Sims says: "Other airlines may be more risk averse – it's a very long and rigorous process to get the technology certified and it will have to be re-certified for every aircraft."
While the IFE system is touchscreen in all classes, each seat also has a remote for playing games, typing or swiping a credit card to pay for goods in the air. (For example, an economy passenger will be able to select and pay for a bottle of champagne, which will then be delivered to the seat by a member of crew.) Travellers will also be able to order snacks and drinks, find out about onboard activities (such as wine tasting in the galley for business passengers), and watch movies and regularly updated YouTube videos and news via the system. USB ports will also allow people to view photos or upload their own films.
So what are the plans for the roll-out of ANZ's new seats? By the end of 2012, the carrier says it will have configured 13 out of 21 aircraft including the B777-200, and the B787-900 when it arrives. The B747 will not be retrofitted with it as these are being phased out.
And when might we see the Sky Couch appearing on other carriers? Sims says: "Other airlines have come down to the Hangar but we have protected the seat for 18 months and we also have a list of airlines we would never sell it to because it would give them too much competitive advantage. The airlines we will sell to will use it in any way they see fit and we will get the royalties. But they will want to see it fly first.
"We will definitely cover the cost of investment in a couple of years by selling the seats. In an era where airlines are punishing passengers with ancillary revenue, we would much rather create something that adds value to our airline. We are constantly pushing the boundaries and we are only the 36th-largest airline in the world. "
For a behind-the-scenes photo-story on the design of the new products, visit Facebook.com/businesstraveller and select the "Photos" tab.
For more information on ANZ's new seating products, see the following articles:
- Behind the scenes of Air New Zealand's seat development (December 14)
- Air New Zealand to launch lie-flat economy seat (January 26)
- Focus: Air New Zealand's Skycouch (February 5)
- Focus: Air New Zealand's new seating (April 17)