Listening to Air New Zealand this week, it was easy to be whisked back to the golden days of air travel when Pan Am's Clippers flew New Zealanders across the Pacific in a degree of luxury. Alas, when the airline finally unveiled its "significant step-change in long-haul travel", the reality was somewhat more pedestrian. There was the widely anticipated bed-seats in economy class - but only at a price. In effect, the airline has added Skycouch economy - or cuddle class - to premium economy as it strives for the aeronautical equivalent of a silk purse. But there is surely only so much that can be done with the sow's ear that is cattle class.
That is not to say Air New Zealand does not deserve credit for its efforts. Its long-haul passengers fly further than most. For many of them, a good sleep is the optimum precursor to arrival in London or New York. While other airlines have concentrated on giving their passengers access to more technology and greater communication with the ground, Air New Zealand has, therefore, sought to emphasise cabin comfort. A Skycouch, a row of seats along the window sides of the aircraft that can be configured into a bed, will be available from November, when Air New Zealand starts flying its new Boeing 777-300ER jets.
Air New Zealand chief executive Rob Fyfe spared little in selling the virtue of this world first. It was about redefining long-haul travel, he said.
"For those who choose, the days of sitting in economy and yearning to lie down to sleep are gone." If only it were that easy.
The bed will be just wide enough for two people lying on their side, a situation far from conducive to a good sleep. And the bed will be just 1.75m long. Taller-than-average passengers will have to bend their legs to keep their feet from hanging over into the aisle. As ever, they will be an easy target for the meal trolley or passengers en route to the toilet. Then there is the price. Buying a Skycouch will entail buying two seats at standard prices with the third seat in the row costing about half price. That suggests an average return flight for two to Europe would involve a base fare of about $2800 each, plus $1400 for the third seat. That compares with almost $6000 return for a single premium economy seat and nearly $10,000 for a business class lie-flat seat.
Premium economy has been a success story for Air New Zealand, perhaps because it takes passengers from economy class into a new environment. Skycouches do not do that, and the airline appears to be hedging its bets with them. Twenty-two sets of the seats will be available, in the first 11 window rows of Boeing 777-300s. A total of 180 standard economy seats will remain, together with 50 seats in premium economy and 44 in business class. The airline's caution seems wise. The Skycouch, developed in-house by Air New Zealand designers and engineers, may, as it says, be the first real improvement in comfort for economy travellers in more than 20 years. But could it be that passengers have become inured to the wretchedness of cattle class in that period? That for them long-haul air travel has become a case of grinning and bearing it?
Airlines have long flouted many of the normal precepts of customer service. Check-in procedures, for example, are guaranteed to raise hackles before the aircraft is even boarded. It is laudable for Air New Zealand to try to improve what airlines describe as cabin ambience. But, given the economics of airlines, there is only so much that can be done to improve conditions in economy class. Most passengers probably accept this. For them, air travel is about the destination, not the journey. And about the cheapest fare. They may not like economy class but may be prepared to continue to tolerate it.