While the spotlight has been on Air New Zealand's uniform replacement, the airline will this week unveil one of its most significant aircraft interior upgrades in years.

The changes are likely to mean more comfortable economy class seats with more fold-down or fold-out features.

The airline is promising the final prototypes will represent "a significant step-change in long-haul travel".

Air New Zealand's long-haul airline boss Ed Simms has been working on aircraft interiors for the past 25 years and says the tough economic environment facing airlines makes the revamp more critical than ever.

Airlines are faced with demands from passengers to have access to more technology and connectivity to the ground - which can yield new income for airlines - and to balance that with cabin ambience.

He said many airlines in the Northern Hemisphere were looking to generate income through selling food or taking a cut from those booking further travel or shows while airborne.

Air New Zealand's long-haul passengers flew further than most and for that reason the airline was concentrating on comforts in the cabin, rather than leaping into connectivity with the ground.

"The last thing you want when you're in 23K is to hear someone saying they're two hours away from the airport. We're looking for a balance."

The airline was assessing means of enabling a form of text or email access and evaluating whether voice contact should be permitted. "My preference is that I would rather not enable incoming voice calls," Simms said.

In November the airline will receive the first of five Boeing 777-300s. The multimillion interior redesign comes after a secret testing programme including members of the public and staff. A replica of a 777 cabin was set up near Air New Zealand's downtown Auckland headquarters and during the three-year programme the airline learned more from hotels and boatbuilders, rather than the aviation industry, about how to get a good-quality rest throughout the aircraft.

Business-class seats already fold down flat and these could be improved with greater foam thickness and shoulder width.

The bigger challenge has been to get improved rest in premium economy and economy.

Economy seats are likely to have more fold-down or fold-out features, making it easier for families or groups of friends to travel together.

"Most of our closer competitors geographically are putting their innovations into first class - that's not an area where Air New Zealand is."

The furniture around the seat will be substantially overhauled.

"What we're finding from customers is that they're wanting us to replicate conditions and the environment that they create for themselves at home."

Increasingly passengers want to work on a laptop while listening to an iPod and eat at the same time, Simms said.

"That's a huge ergonomic challenge. We've spent a lot of time trying to create three separate spaces."

The cabin will also feature different storage areas in and around seats,

"People carry more gadgetry than before, people want to know where their stuff is and the security of it."

Enhancing personal space was also a priority. This not only related to the distance between seats or seat pitch but also how passengers felt trapped by meal carts which had resulted in a rethink of how and when service could be delivered around the cabin.

Entertainment systems are in for an overhaul, with more frequently loaded content including that from YouTube.

"We're moving on from saying we will dictate what movies you will watch to saying can an airline list the top 10 sites on YouTube and move to the short, sound-bite type entertainment rather than the three-hour blockbuster."

Simms said the airline also wanted to provide more of the type of food people ate at home and give more flexibility about when and where passengers ate.

Air New Zealand has been named airline of the year by Air Transport World and chief executive Rob Fyfe said the remodelling shown early to the judges was a factor in the award.