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Redesigned Jets: A Look at the Future of Flying?

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Air New Zealand (ANZ) wins its share of awards for good service, but, this year, it should also win an award for chutzpah. In announcing a completely redesigned cabin for its long-range 777s, the line’s General Manager crowed that the new design represents “the most significant advance in comfort for economy passengers since the jumbo jet.” And just what is this big “advance”? Seats an inch or so narrower than the old design seats. Although comparatively few of you are likely to fly ANZ, its new design may well be a portent of things to come for international flights, generally. And the news isn’t good for economy-class travelers.

ANZ’s new 777s feature some of the most elaborate business class seats yet—truly “lie flat” seats, offering almost 80 inches of room to stretch out overnight. The new Premium Economy SpaceSeat is, as the line claims, close to business class on many other lines. And all three classes have the latest high-tech entertainment/communications system (although, apparently, no in-flight Wi-Fi).

So what’s not to like? The fanfare about economy class is all about Skycouch, a new seat design that converts some of the three-seat units into a bed. That is, if you can consider a padded, flat surface roughly five feet long by two-and-a-half feet wide shared between two travelers, a “bed.” Yes, you can lie down over the width of the three-set unit, but it’s a far cry from the lie-down space you get with a typical business-class seat. Still, by scrunching, an adult couple could presumably enjoy a more comfortable overnight than they would in regular cattle-car economy. ANZ is equipping 20 three-seat units in each plane as Skycouch units.

With all the hype about Skycouch, ANZ doesn’t mention that seats on new economy are 10-across rather than the 9-across in the line’s older 777s. That means all new economy seats are an inch or so narrower than those on its older 777s, and equivalent to the ultra-narrow 737 seats that you all know and hate. The narrower seats mean the new design is a net downgrade for anyone who doesn’t buy into the couch.

What about fares? Skycouch is priced fairly: A couple pays a premium of roughly 40 percent over the cost of two single seats—a bit less than the 50 percent premium for a separate third seat. But fares for the new premium economy are really disappointing. When I checked, for travel in late April, the premium economy fare from Los Angeles to Auckland was a bit over double regular economy, and the fare from Los Angeles to London was almost two-and-a-half times regular economy.

And this disparity, I fear, may be a foretaste of future international flights, generally:

  • Economy seating and service are most likely to continue to get worse. ANZ isn’t the only line to start cramming 10 skimpy seats in each 777 row; Air France, Emirates and KLM are already doing it, and I expect others to follow. And you’ll probably see legroom shrink, too, as each line tries to cram more seats into each plane. About the only area where you can expect improvements is in-flight entertainment.
  • Premium economy will continue to be a good product on most airlines that offer it, and more will probably do so. But, at least so far, airlines are pricing premium economy to the subset of the expense account set that is prohibited from flying business class, not to leisure travelers looking to escape the cattle-car crowding of traditional economy.
  • Business class will continue to be the main focus of cabin development, with ever more opulent seating and service and ever more extravagant fares. It will entirely replace first class on most lines, as it has on ANZ.

I fully understand the industry groupthink that says most leisure travelers will put up with a really bad product to cut their fares a buck or two. What I regret is that the industry offers no solace for that minority who would pay a reasonable surcharge for a reasonably comfortable seat.

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