Unless you’re in the pointy end of the plane, with proper beds and complimentary caviar whenever you click your free booze-soaked fingers, long haul air travel is no fun at all. For economy class passengers, it’s usually a case of desperately trying to struggle into some kind of comfortable position in order to get an hour or two’s shut-eye.
Air New Zealand (£) reckons it may have come up with an innovative solution. At the beginning of April 2010, it debuted the ‘Skycouch’ seats on its Auckland – Los Angeles – route.
What is the Skycouch?
The Skycouch is like a normal bank of three seats, but with a few twists. The armrests raise up all the way, and footrests flip up from under the seat at angles of either 60 degrees or 90 degrees. Get all three at 90 degrees and you’ve essentially got a flat platform. The ideas is that couples (or families) buy the bank of three seats between them, and then have freedom to move around, cuddle up and sleep lying down.
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In many ways – food, staff and entertainment in particular – Air’s offering is excellent. But there are some obvious issues with the Skycouch, the first being turbulence. It’s no good lying down if you have to constantly sit up with your seat belt fastened. This is cleverly taken care of by supplying Skycouch customers with a bag of ‘loop’ and ‘cuddle’ belts that you can use safely whilst horizontal. There’s also a Kama Sutra-ish manual explaining possible safe-but-comfy positions.
The belt kit looks rather like equipment for a mountaineering expedition. And this is the first major problem. Book a Skycouch and you will be deluged with unnecessary stuff. We felt like we’d walked into a bedding factory – and had five pillows, three blankets and underlay sheet to deal with. It couldn’t all fit in the overhead compartment, so it ended up as space-thieving clutter in our would-be bed.
Testing it out
Not that we could actual use it as a bed. The simple fact is that two normal-sized human beings will not comfortably fit lying down on a Skycouch. Attempting this was a farce. We wriggled, we flipped, we clambered over each other and eventually just gave up. After 45 minutes of absurd shuffling, we had woken ourselves, accidentally switched the seat back screens on several times and thoroughly annoyed everyone who was sat around us.
The reclining problem
Part of the problem – as it always is on planes – was that we were sat behind the sort of selfish numpties who recline their seats all the way back as soon as they’re allowed to. And the seats go back surprisingly/ infuriatingly far. As the in-flight ‘concierge’ (another gimmick) admitted, the Skycouches just don’t work as a bed when the people in front recline. If Air New Zealand is to persist with the Skycouches, it has to remove the recline function. That ain’t gonna be popular, I suspect.
As it is, hobbits might appreciate the benefits. But then again, it’s not small people who really have a problem with airline seats. The people likely to be tempted into the Skycouch are the chunky and the tall who suffer the most. They’re likely to be very disappointed unless significant tweaks are made.
The Skycouches could backfire badly on Air New Zealand – largely because of what they’re not telling you. The Boeing 777-300s have been decked out in a 3-4-3 formation, with both seats and aisles narrower than on the 777-200s that usually fly the route. This means anyone in an aisle seat has their shoulder knocked when anyone goes past and only the truly waif-like can sit without having to wrench both shoulders forward.
Is the Skycouch worth it?
To anyone who just wants to get from A to B as cheaply as possible, of course the Skycouch isn’t worth buying. But then this section of the market would also regard upgrading to premium economy or business class a scandalous waste of money too. If Air New Zealand guts the planes to put bigger seats in a 3-3-3 formation, cuts the clutter and clusters the Skycouch customers in a non-reclining area, then maybe it can work for going all the way to London. But for Australian customers going to Los Angeles, the extra two to three hour layover in Auckland is never going to be an appealing trade-off.
My advice to couples travelling together is to try an old trick – find the cheapest flight you can, and check in online. Pick the least desirable bank of three seats on the plane, and reserve the window and aisle seats. You’ve a great chance of having no-one else join you, plus the opportunity to sprawl and get comfortable is much the same as it will be with the Skycouch.
All content copyright David Whitley.