Air New Zealand is working on the commercial viability of its new prototype Economy Skynest sleeping pods. Air NZ's head of airline programmes Kerry Reeves explains to Grant Bradley what they are, how they will be priced and what are the chances of seeing them in the air soon.
What are they?
Each Economy Skynest has six sleeping pods (bunk style beds) with a 200cm-plus mattress to stretch out on. That's about the same as a Business Premier lie-flat bed, and the new ones have a shoulder area 58cm wide which is wider than the current premium seats. By comparison, the Economy Skycouch is 155cm long and 74cm wide.
What's included with the Economy Skynest?
Each pod will include a full-size pillow, sheets, blanket and ear plugs, along with privacy curtains and lighting designed for sleep. The airline is exploring other features such as separate reading light, personal device USB outlet and ventilation outlet.
How much will you pay?
Price will be determined by time in the pod. Reeves says this is work in progress. Strict rules mean all passengers need a seat for take-off or landing but those who opt for a pod won't be paying for the price of two seats as it's envisaged they would only have it for a few hours. Time per bed could be divided in two to three slots for flights which, with the coming New York services, could be in excess of 17 hours. "We're evaluating what quality time is. Some of the research we've done has found that if you get four hours of quality sleep that's all you need." It could vary on the day as in periods of turbulence passengers may not be able to move out of seats to get to the pod.
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What about other trimmings?
Apart from lying flat, this will be the full Economy experience with the same food and amenities as others in the cabin.
Are they hard to get into?
Footage released shows the pod is cosy but Reeves says he was surprised at how easily those who have trialled them were able to get on to the top and bottom beds. ''We had many different sizes and shapes of passengers and there were some concerns but nobody had any problems getting in there. The process of getting in and out was a lot more intuitive than we thought.''
How will the economics work for the airline?
Commercial aircraft cabin space is the most expensive real estate in the world. The airline has to get the balance of space the Skynest would take and the seats sacrificed right. Reeves, who was at the heart of work on new Dreamliner interiors more than eight years ago, says the number of seats displaced will depend on the cabin configuration, including galleys and lavatories. The "worst-case" scenario could mean five to six seats would be lost.
Where will the pods be?
In the centre of the cabin to allow beds to be stacked three high to the ceiling arch but where it will be down the plane's length hasn't been decided. The airline is moving to a mainly Dreamliner fleet and the pods have been designed to fit these planes.
What about regulatory approval?
Approval for new kit like this is fiendishly complex but although there are still a few hoops to jump over. Reeves says the airline is confident it has met every requirement and reached a solution for them. It is working through the European Union Safety Agency (which has similar authority as the FAA in the US) because of its experience with Airbus sleeping pod proposals and beds on corporate jets. "We're very confident we'll get approval, and regulators have looked at what we're proposing and have indicated they have no objections."
How was it developed?
The airline has spent three years developing this (and other interior products) at its ''Hangar 22'' research facility. More than 200 customers and some crew have spent time trying the Skynest beds and Reeves says those who spent two hours or more there went to sleep. The airline is in a race with other carriers to come up with the next big thing and will be hoping this is it. Since releasing details earlier today it's made a splash in media around the world. That is part of Air NZ's MO - attracting attention out of proportion to its size. He won't put a number on it but says development costs have been eye-watering. ''Nothing in aviation isn't.''
Will everyone want to sleep at the same time?
Reeves said this was explored during customer testing. ''We were pleasantly surprised there was an unwritten etiquette that people have. Generally people were in there for one reason and they all had respect for each other.'' It was no different to business class with people lying sleeping.
Any Mile High Club concerns?
Reeves says no. ''That exists today in Skycouch — our crew have procedures for all those kinds of things and there is no change there.''
Is there anything else like this?
Back in flying boat days and the early days of transcontinental travel there were bunks but Reeves says he doesn't know of and commercial airline doing this now. Some crew rests under the floor of cabins are bunk style. He says Air NZ looked at passenger pods downstairs but the ceiling height means passengers would have to stoop, and being there adds extra complexity requiring crew, and there and there would be problems if passengers became unwell.
Would other airlines be interested in this?
Air NZ has applied for trademark and patent protection for Skynest. It has sold the Skycouch concept to four other airlines and would do the same with the pod.
When could Skynest fly?
One logical time would be when new Boeing 787-10s enter the fleet from 2022. But Reeves says they could also be fitted into existing planes.
Will it go ahead?
Reeves says releasing some details is part of the search for feedback (which from travel agents has been extremely positive and the concept has been praised on social media) but the airline is already deadly serious about Skynest. ''We wouldn't put it out there unless we were serious — we've been working on this for three years and so now is the time to say it is something we want to pursue further,'' he says.
''We've gone through the desirability stage, finished feasibility and we're now moving into the viability of the business case to decide whether we do this or not.''