IMAGINE if instead of just praying for an empty seat next to you in a long economy flight, you could guarantee it. Take that dream further and configure your two economy seats so it is possible to lie down and sleep.
This could be a reality next April, Air New Zealand says. It has revealed plans to offer passengers unsold seats when they check in at the airport for conversion to a near-flat bed.
The company has not said what it might charge passengers for the extra seat. But based on a "reasonable charge" of $150, a aviation analyst, Marcus Curley, said the move had the potential to earn the carrier $60 million in extra revenue each year.
Mr Curley, head of research at Goldman Sachs JBWere, said the airline's management was coy about revealing too much before a relaunch of its aircraft interiors before the arrival of several Boeing 777-300ER aircraft at the end of next year.
But he said the seat arrangement would involve a system in which both seats could slide forward and the seat rest would raise up so the foot room disappeared and the passenger could spread out across both seats.
Unlike the herringbone design used in business class, where the seats fold down flat, the economy class "beds" would still have a slight pitch.
Because this is a world first, the idea also has the potential to earn millions of dollars for Air New Zealand in export revenue. Its aircraft interior design subsidiary Altitude Aerospace Interiors, set up last year, plans to sell its economy seat-bed design to other airlines. Analysts were given only vague details of the plans at an Air New Zealand investor briefing last week, but what is likely is that passengers will have the option of buying the extra seat when they check in at the airport.
Mr Curley said the move would greatly improve Air New Zealand's ability to sell spare seats. And at $150 a seat, "a reasonable asking price if it means you can stretch out", the company would lift long-haul yields by 4 per cent a year, based on the latest loading statistics across all routes, he said. Mr Curley did not believe it would cannibalise business class, because business travellers wanted to be sure they could get a flat seat when they were flying and would not take the risk of waiting until they arrived at the airport to see whether any spare seats were available in economy class.
Air New Zealand's international group general manager, Ed Sims, said that allowing our economy passengers to sleep flat was the airline's "Holy Grail", but said current speculation was misleading.
"Our design and prototyping that involves more than 20 options has some months to go and only five or six of these options might fly," he said.
Mr Sims said Air New Zealand's most significant innovations would be revealed when the airline launches its long-haul product for new Boeing 777-300ERs, which start arriving in late 2010.
- with Craig Platt