Air New Zealand has launched a top secret project to revamp its business class cabin.
The airline has taken space in a secure building near its downtown Auckland headquarters to develop new seats for its business premier class, timed for fitting into its next generation of long-haul planes early next decade, and for retrofitting into the aircraft that remain in its fleet.
While the airline is not releasing details of the project, the test site has been dubbed ''Hangar 22'' and for the past month a handful of its customers, including some of its most frequent long-haul flyers have started trialling early-stage product development.
The new business class seats are likely to lead to new versions of premium economy and economy seats in other parts of the plane.
During testing for new seats participants typically sleep on lie-flat seats for hours, sometimes overnight to provide feedback to airlines and designers. They sample new food, entertainment and service.
They are likely to have signed confidentiality agreements and it is understood work at Hangar 22 is so sensitive that the airline's top executives are not allowed to enter the site without an innovation team escort.
That team has been working with seat manufacturers with airline and road transport experience, technology companies from Asia and the United States, the sports industry, food industry and innovation consultants.
Consultants from United States firm IDEO have been Auckland. That firm has worked on projects ranging from an early mouse for Apple computers, a Levis trucker jacket with wearable technology to designing instruments for faster, more accurate spinal surgery.
The airline's existing business premier seats were developed last decade and the herring bone layout was pioneering at the time, with passengers facing away from the windows and seats flipping over to turn into beds. There's extra cushioning in the back of the seat, and they add a topper and duvet.
While it has garnered awards in the past the airline's ''hard product'' is facing increased competition from other carriers at a different stage of their refresh cycle.
They are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into revamping business class cabins where airlines make their biggest yields and are enjoying strong passenger demand.
Air New Zealand in 2010, following another hush-hush project in what was dubbed Hangar 9, Air New Zealand launched its successful ''cuddle class'' Sky Couch, a row of seats in economy that are sold together and convert into a bed.
Air New Zealand's chief marketing and customer officer Mike Tod could not discuss details of the current project but said airlines only got one shot at remodelling cabins every 12 to 15 years.
''Whatever you land on is going to be on board an aircraft for a decade plus, so you have to get it right. And part of getting it right involves a little bit of crystal ball gazing. In our case we have to look as far out as 2030.''
Air New Zealand needed to determine what technology customers would be influenced by and whether there were going to be differences between Eastern and Western markets.
''How will people consume digital content in the future as things like mixed reality go mainstream, what changes may there be in dietary habits? That's just the start of an exhaustive list of questions we need to try and answer,'' Tod said.
''We have been having a bunch of super interesting conversations across different industries around the globe trying to distil down what common themes we need to be thinking about, while at the same time identifying partners who share the same vision for the future of air travel.''
Air New Zealand will soon make a call on replacing its Boeing 777-200s and the new aircraft will be the first with the all-new cabins.
It is looking closely at the Boeing 777-X, a plane which will be fly further than anything in its current fleet. The ultra long range version of that aircraft is due to be delivered to airlines from 2022. The Airbus A350-XWB is another contender.
This would mean the airline would have to decide on new seats by the end of next year to ensure they can be manufactured in time.