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Couches in coach: A cozier way to fly?

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David J. Phillip/AP/File

(Read caption) In this file photo, airline passengers check-in for their flight at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston. For an additional fee, New Zealand air has introduced shared couches in coach on overnight flights.

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Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal had a fun article about Air New Zealand’s latest innovation: Cuddle Class. As “the Middle Seat” columnist Scott McCartney describes it:

Steve Metz of Houston cuddled up with his wife Jackie and slept as they flew to New Zealand on a small futon. This flying couch wasn’t in a private jet or even a high-priced business-class cabin. They snuggled in coach.

“I don’t sleep well on planes, but I actually slept a good five hours,” said Mr. Metz, aboard a 13-hour Air New Zealand flight from Los Angeles to Auckland recently. “It’s no king-sized bed, but we made do.”

“Cuddle class” is an innovative seat design that has given coach passengers the first real opportunity to lie flat for sleep on long flights. To create the extra space, three seats in a row have fold-away armrests and a padded foot-rest panel that flips up and locks into place. Two passengers take up three seats and pay an average of half the cost of the third seat, typically an extra $500 to $800 for an overnight flight.

This sounds a fun innovation, but don’t get too excited:

The sky couch has limitations. To make it fit, Air New Zealand narrowed the aisles in the coach cabin. And since the couch is only about 4½-feet long, most people have to scrunch up to keep their feet from hanging into the aisle. In the middle of the night on a recent flight, it was impossible to walk through the coach cabin without bumping feet and legs hanging out of sky couches. And since it’s still the cheap-ticket cabin, two people have to cuddle closely in only 32 to 33 inches of width for each row, including the seat.

Now what does this have to do with economics, you might ask? Well, Air New Zealand faces a classic problem for any supplier who offers different levels of service. On the one hand, it wants to offer better service to attract more customers. On the other, it wants to make sure that some travelers still opt for higher-priced service. As McCartney puts its:

Air New Zealand doesn’t want to make the couch longer or wider—if it were better, it might start cannibalizing passengers from business-class or premium-economy seats.

So there you have it. Coach air travel isn’t unpleasant just because the airlines want to reduce costs. It’s unpleasant so that some flyers will pony up for better service.

P.S. For more economics of the air, see this post on the Tragedy of the Overhead Bin.

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