Airline review: Air New Zealand Dreamliner economy Skycouch, Chicago to Auckland

THE FLIGHT

NZ27. I'm on board the airline's second non-stop flight between Chicago – the third biggest city in the US – and Auckland, New Zealand's largest city, with connections over the Tasman to Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide.

THE PLANE

The Ultra Long Haul (ie more 12,000 kilometres) version of the twin-engined Boeing Dreamliner, 787-9, fitted with Rolls-Royce's new generation of Trent 100 TEN engines. Air New Zealand has 13 Boeing 787 Dreamliners in its fleet, including four 787-9s. With 138,000 litres of fuel aboard, it is capable of flying 1000 kilometres further than the 13,200 we expect to fly today.

THE ROUTE

Chicago to Auckland, non stop – the longest flight ever flown by Air New Zealand. It's also the longest non stop flight to have ever left Chicago's famed O'Hare International, the sixth busiest airport in the world.

See: Air New Zealand's longest ever non-stop flight takes off

CLASS

Economy Skycouch. Air New Zealand was the first airline to offer those of us who can't afford to fly Business Class on longer flights two options that are a substantial improvement on standard economy: Premium Economy and Skycouch.

Now better known as "Cuddle Class", the Skycouch is essentially aimed at families travelling together with one (or more) children too big for a bassinet and too small to be seated in a separate seat with an unretractable armrest making cuddling up to mum or dad uncomfortable. Parents with a young child who have used it this way (ideally with a fourth seat seat over the aisle so parents can rest in alternative shifts) swear by it.

THE LOYALTY SCHEME

Airpoints (Star Alliance).

DURATION

Up to 16 and a half hours, depending on weather and headwinds. The flight to Chicago, over the same distance, can shave more than two hours off the flight time – thanks to the prevailing tail winds as you fly west to east.

FREQUENCY

Three times a week in each direction.

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THE SEAT

36 H, J and K. There are 13 Skycouches on the airline's 787-9, all in the front section of the 3-3-3 seat economy cabin. In the early days, Economy Skycouch came under considerable online criticism from travellers who didn't realise it was in economy – despite the clue in the name. Others complained they'd been misled into thinking it was the size of a double bed and found it squashed. For the record, the full length is 1.55m (or 5ft 1inch in old money) while the width is a mere 74cm (29 inches).

BAGGAGE

Two pieces of checked luggage each weighing 23kg, plus normal cabin luggage.

COMFORT

Before take-off, the flight attendants explain they'll happily convert the three seats into a Skycouch once we're in the air. But it's pretty simple to do it yourself. Just raise the armrests, push each seat into its 12cm recline mode, tug the soft pillows and blanket provided. You'll also get instructions on how to use the all purpose (two adults and a toddler) sleeper's safety belt kit, which resembles something a mountaineer might take up Everest. Tonight all of the Skycouches are taken up by one adult. We couch "potatoes" are all told not to let our feet protrude into the aisle.

But it's hard to remember that when you're asleep. Be prepared to wake up every time someone heads for the loo. My unofficial vox pop when we land at Auckland tends to confirm that those adults under 155cm have enjoyed a decent night's sleep, while those closer to 180cm have been less satisfied.

CHECK-IN

Extremely disappointing. Though Air New Zealand's part in the process is fluent, things get decidedly third-rate once we're handed over to the airport authority for security clearance.

O'Hare used to pride itself on being the busiest airport in the world (a title now lost to Atlanta), but the current arrangements for international passengers at Terminal Five are a disgrace, with domestic and overseas-bound passengers crushed together in a tiny security space with no semblance of order. It's a reminder that – no matter how good the airline – much of the overall travel experience is out of its hands.

FOOD

Standard economy fare. Tonight's dinner is a choice between beef pasta or grilled chicken, mash, peas and beans. Breakfast consists of either a cheese omelette or fruit platter.

SERVICE

Friendly and efficient, though as this is a night flight (a distinct advantage when it comes to UHL travel), I'm asleep as soon as dinner is finished.

ENTERTAINMENT

The airline's entertainment system is one of the most sophisticated in the world. And where else can you see Flight of the Conchords Live in London, or listen to the Best of Neil Finn?

ONE MORE THING

Skycouch was launched in 2010, and has since been licensed to three other non-competing airlines, including Japan's ANA.

THE VERDICT

The Skycouch pricing is complicated, depending on the route, the number of adults involved, and how many economy customers are aboard the flight.

Is it better than a normal economy seat? Of course: try sitting in an economy seat for 16 hours.

Is it worth considering as a less expensive option than a Premium Economy seat? Definitely not, if you're able to afford the $NZ2200 (plus taxes) for this ultra-long haul leg. My advice? If you're over 170cm, pay the $NZ150 supplement to sit in economy cabin exit row 48.

OUR RATING OUT OF FIVE

★★★½

Steve Meacham travelled as a guest of Air New Zealand.

See also: The world's best premium economy seats (and what they cost)

See also: Airline review: Air New Zealand premium economy class

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