Air New Zealand's Economy and Skycouch on the 777-300ER

By John Walton, February 16 2011
Air New Zealand's Economy and Skycouch  on the 777-300ER

So far this week we've brought detailed first reviews of Air New Zealand's brand new Business Premier and Premium Economy Spaceseat cabins.

However, many companies' corporate travel policies mandate economy even for long trips, even as the world economy starts to recover from the global financial crisis. 

And while Air New Zealand's new "cuddle class" Economy Skycouch seats have been getting most of the attention, we've cut through the hype to ask if the economy cabin is much of an improvement for business travellers.

The cabin and the seats

Economy is, as usual, at the back of the plane. It stretches from row 34 to 47 in the forward cabin and rows 48-60 at the back. 

The cabin layout is a cramped 3-4-3 high-density configuration, which many business travellers avoid as much as possible. The older 747s that these new 777-300ERs are replacing were also in 3-4-3 layout, but 747s are significantly wider than the 777s and so the new cabin is a real squash.

To find the space to cram in one extra seat per row, the new seats are one inch narrower -- and the aisles have shrunk too.

In fact, the aisles are so tight that it will be nearly impossible to wheel a carry-on bag to the back of the plane. Passengers sitting in aisle seats should be prepared to be bumped into all the way to their destination.

The in-flight entertainment has improved significantly, with responsive large touch screens and a wider range of movies, TV, games and travel guides to keep you entertained while you're squashed into your seat. You'll also be able to order food and drink without getting up or buzzing for a steward.

The downside to the great new entertainment is the enormous, sharp-edged boxes that power it. They're stuck to the floor right where your ankles go, jutting out into your space. This is a huge design flaw, especially on an aircraft that's already low on the legroom.

The boxes also restrict the amount of luggage you can fit under the seat in front of you and still have room for your feet -- and with a cramped high-density cabin, there'll be more competition for overhead bin space, which hasn't increased. If you plan on bringing sizeable cabin baggage, board early.

The seatback is cleverly configured, with a fold-out double-hinged table, a cup-holder and a little storage area beneath the TV screen for pens, glasses and so on. It probably won't hold a larger mobile phone, though. There's also a remote control for controlling the audio and games on the entertainment system.

Seats in rows 36 to 47 in the forward cabin also have 110v universal plug power sockets and connections for playing movies from your own device on the TV screen. Seats in rows 34, 35, and 48 and back don't have them.

The Skycouch

The revolutionary part of the cabin is the new Skycouch, which converts rows of three Economy seats next to the window in the front cabin into a sofa. The crew then add a mattress pad and a full-size pillow to make it a bit more comfortable.

The mechanism is basically a legrest that folds up to extend the bottom of the seat forward to the seat back in front. Two passengers travelling together can buy the third seat at a reduced rate.

As the Air New Zealand staff were at pains to explain to everyone on the plane who commented how small it was, the Skycouch isn't a lie-flat bed. We saw a six-foot tall person test the seats, and his feet touched the armrests of the seat in the *middle* section across the aisle. 

But if you lean against the wall, even a tall person should be able to stretch out their legs across the three seat couch. It's a real stretch to think that two people could both sit against the wall if the seats in front are reclined, though. Of course, all the publicity shots for the Skycouch have the seatbacks in front in the upright position, and some very short people as the models.

Business travel in a Skycouch?

Air New Zealand has been advertising these seats heavily for families and couples travelling together, but we also think they're useful for business travellers sharing a flight with a colleague.

Don't worry -- we're not suggesting that you put "cuddle class" to the test with your co-workers, but if your company does make you fly economy, you might be able to persuade your travel people to make a Skycouch booking, especially for the longer flights to the US, Canada and London.

For colleagues travelling together in the window and aisle seats, this makes some sense. First, only the Skycouch seats have legrests, which can be set individually at a 45 degree down-angle to give some support to your legs. 

Second, the reduced-price middle seat will mean you have much more elbow-room and can potentially spread out business papers or a laptop between you. Remember, Air New Zealand decided on the maximum-density ten-across seating, which means that you'd be very cramped otherwise. Opening a laptop in a seat you're actually sitting in -- as opposed to an empty middle seat -- will be nearly impossible.

Also, all the armrests in a Skycouch row can be raised flush with the seatback, unlike the armrests in many other rows. That makes spreading out into the middle seat a lot easier.

Finally, the at-seat power only extends between rows 36 and 47, in the Skycouch zone. If you want to be able to work through the flight, you'll need that power for your laptop.

Best seats not in a Skycouch?

Go for the pairs of seats at the window at the very front and very back of each cabin. These are wider, with fewer people in a row, and further away from the aisles so less likely to be bumped into all night.

The bulkhead seats in the middle at the very front of each cabin are also a good choice for not having anyone in front of you. However, if you're a movie fan, the touch-screen entertainment monitors are mounted to the wall, and are far enough that they may be out of reach. 

Since the bulkhead seats are also bassinet crib seats, business travellers may be turfed out in favour of small children, and your likelihood of sitting within screaming range of a small child is increased.

However, Air New Zealand has put together a great kids' pack for younger flyers, and is also organising "story time" in the galley at the back of the plane, which should help to keep children entertained. Happy and occupied children make business travellers' flights much more pleasant too.

Food and drink

Since we looked over the plane while it was on the ground, Air New Zealand didn't have the new induction ovens in the kitchen galleys going. The new ovens will increase the range of meals and snacks that can be offered on board, and you'll be able to order them from the touch-screen menu at your seat.

Air New Zealand serves fantastic NZ wine almost exclusively. If you're used to getting the good stuff up at the pointy end of the plane, Air NZ tells us that you'll be able to buy a glass of whatever's being served up in Business Premier for NZ$8-10. You won't be able to pay with your Airpoints, though.

If you were expecting a swanky stand-up wine bar area like in Business Premier, think again -- the kitchen galleys at the back of the plane, while spacious, are purely functional.

Check back later this week for more on the new cabins, top tips for where to find a seat, a video of how the in-flight entertainment system works, and the food and drink that Air New Zealand will be serving on board. We've also got full coverage of Air New Zealand news and reviews.

John Walton

Aviation journalist and travel columnist John took his first long-haul flight when he was eight weeks old and hasn't looked back since. Well, except when facing rearwards in business class.

05 Jul 2013

Total posts 1

Thank you for the honest review of the terrible standard economy seating on NZ's 777. It is a misery for customers and crew. Even the aisle seats are awful with your shoulder being bashed every time someone passes. Airlines using the 10 across configuration have really crossed the line into unacceptable discomfort. I avoid this experience by using any alternative airline available. NZ is fortunate to have nearly zero competition in many markets (e.g. US-NZ).

I very much agree with the fact that these seats are very uncomfortable. But I also believe that if the seating layout changes to 9 abreast, no annoying IFE boxes, and have plenty of legroom, even if it's not a skycouch product, it will still be an extremely competitive product in the industry

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