Some economy-class travellers envying those at the front of the plane with lie-flat beds may soon have another option: Air New Zealand Ltd has developed a sleeping pod prototype to help passengers cope with near-18 hour flights.
The Economy Skynest concept unveiled on Wednesday, which features six bunks akin to those in a train car or capsule hotel, would provide extra comfort for an added cost at a time when airlines are turning to longer flights because passengers are willing to pay for non-stop services.
But the airline, which plans to launch Auckland-New York flights in October, faces a stiff hurdle in not just making the economics of the new product work but in meeting regulatory requirements designed to help passengers survive a crash that have held back novel seating concepts in the past.
"Despite the pretty pictures, this is likely to be a lengthy and arduous certification process," said David Flynn, the editor-in-chief of website Executive Traveller.
"There's a certain appeal to these railway-style sleeping berths, although it's highly unlikely that passengers could strap themselves into these bunks for take-off and landing," he said.
Air New Zealand said economy passengers would book the Skynest in addition to their regular seat.
Rival Qantas Airways Ltd considered but ultimately rejected an Airbus proposal to place bunks in the cargo hold on A350 planes to be used on the world's longest-ever commercial flights from Sydney to London.
Air New Zealand said it would make a final decision on whether to introduce the Skynest next year after it had assessed the performance of the Auckland-New York route during its inaugural year.
The carrier's head of airline programmes Kerry Reeves said gaining certification of the product was a definite challenge, even when compared with its earlier innovations like the Economy Skycouch which allows a row of economy seats to be turned into a couch after take-off.
"But it was a prize worth chasing and one that we think has the potential to be a game changer for economy class travellers on all airlines around the world," Reeves said in a statement.