Flying coach can be uncomfortable, but flat beds are coming

SYDNEY : Airline passengers traveling long haul have gotten accustomed to an uncomfortable night’s sleep in economy class. One carrier thinks it has the answer.

Air New Zealand plans to introduce pods with flat beds in coach that passengers can book for four-hour naps. The pods will initially be installed on direct flights to Chicago and New York from Auckland, which can last up to 17 hours or more.

The carrier is one of many trying to make ultralong-haul flights—those lasting at least 16 hours without a break—more palatable to wary passengers. Singapore Airlines has scrapped economy class entirely on some of its routes to the U.S., while Australia’s Qantas Airways has introduced ambient lighting and variable temperatures to reduce the impact of jet lag on its longest routes.

Airlines had been looking into the changes before the Covid-19 pandemic upended global travel and led to widespread layoffs across the industry. As borders reopen, airlines hope innovation can win back fliers. Air New Zealand plans to introduce its SkyNest beds in 2024, assuming it can overcome supply disruptions of key parts.

One challenge for airlines will be to persuade people to pay more to use the pods at a time when higher energy prices are pushing up airfares and inflation is squeezing household budgets. Capacity constraints have also soured the travel experience for many passengers, with some airlines canceling flights due to a lack of staff and long queues to pass through security at airports.

Air New Zealand thinks that between 8% and 10% of coach passengers would be prepared to pay for a stretch in one of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner’s six bunks. It hasn’t figured out exactly how much it will charge those who want to escape what many call “cattle class,” but believes that the economics stack up.

“We’ve got to the point where there is value for both parties,” said Kerry Reeves, Air New Zealand’s head of aircraft programs. “We’ve got an affordable proposition for customers in that now is in the realms of ‘yep, it’s viable for us to make money off it.’”

Rico Merkert, deputy director of the University of Sydney’s Institute of Transport and Logistics Studies, said he was optimistic about demand for the pods despite the risk that cost-of-living pressures will crimp travel budgets. Flat beds have traditionally been available in first-class or business-class cabins only.

“Once the pent-up demand will subside, airlines will further have to make flying more attractive again and make those ultra long haul flights as enjoyable as possible,” said Mr. Merkert. “I think there will be additional willingness to pay a little extra for getting some sleep.”

He said Air New Zealand was likely responding to rival Qantas’s “Project Sunrise.” Qantas, which began flying nonstop from Western Australia to London in 2017, in May confirmed an order for 12 Airbus A350s that it said will enable it to fly nonstop from Australia to any other city from 2025.

Air New Zealand plans to locate the beds between coach and premium economy, resulting in five fewer coach seats on the plane, Mr. Reeves said. The carrier’s designers created additional space by moving other areas of the cabin, including galleys.

“It doesn’t take too long to invent bunks, there’s many examples of that in transportation for centuries,” Mr. Reeves said. “The design challenge was incorporating it into the airplane in an efficient way that didn’t require us to lose too much capacity.

Air New Zealand has long sought to carve out a reputation for innovation. It claims to be the first carrier to boil water onboard and pioneered the use of attention-grabbing comedic safety videos including by the country’s world champion rugby team and flamboyant 1980s fitness guru Richard Simmons.

As part of its own ultralong-haul strategy, Qantas said it considered bunks before opting to maximize space around seats in all classes and introducing a wellness zone. The zone, which occupies the space of about three rows of economy seats, allows passengers to stretch out and rehydrate before returning to their seats. Qantas also changes the frequency of the light in the cabin in an effort to influence passengers’ circadian rhythms and reduce jet lag.

Qantas currently flies nonstop from Australia’s east coast to cities such as Los Angeles and Dallas, but New York is too far, and a service to London flies from Perth, a city on Australia’s western coast.

“All of these options that various airlines are considering are really smart to do,” said Phil Capps, Qantas’s product and service executive manager.

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