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Couches in Coach: What One Airline’s Gamble Means for You

Air New Zealand generated a lot of ink (and pixels) with the announcement that it was installing “Skycouches” in a few rows of seats in the economy cabins of its long-haul 777s. Couches—really? Yes. Starting later this year, the line really will be offering a sort-of flat seating option, but it will be a far cry from what most of us would consider lie-down seating.

Air New Zealand’s new product will be installed on a few three-seat units in a few economy rows. These seats will have footrests that rise to the level of the seat cushion and form a relatively flat surface three seats wide. The airline plans to charge extra for each seat in one of those rows, and it will also offer a reduced third-seat price to any couple that buys the other two seats in the group. All in all, each traveler will probably wind up paying several hundred dollars more than the fare for a straight economy seat.

Although the concept seems intriguing, I can see two main cautions:

  • The “sleeping” surface for two will be about two-and-a-half feet wide and about five feet long. Obviously, that’s a far cry from most folks’ idea of a double bed. The publicity photos show a couple with their heads propped up against the window and their legs bent—and I suspect even then that couple is on the short side.
  • The economics will work out only for couples, unless the airline develops some sort of “share” program for solo travelers.

I don’t mean to sound completely negative, especially before I try it. And, in general, we should all welcome anything that attempts to improve the lot of suffering economy travelers. I hope it will. If you’re interested, seats go on sale in April. Log onto the Air New Zealand website or see a travel agent.

Skycouch is an interesting innovation and I’m sure all the airline-watchers will keep an eye on how well it sells. Unfortunately, however, the plain and painful fact is that no matter how loudly airlines claim they’re trying to “upgrade” economy class, the improvements are invariably cosmetic: At the end of the day, economy is still a cattle car and will stay that way for the foreseeable future.

In other airline news:

  • Looking for airfare deals? Airfarewatchdog‘s George Hobica notes that many airlines now offer “promo” coupons to selected travelers, reaching them mainly by Internet feed, email, or Twitter. The only way to buy tickets at these prices is on the airline’s own website.
  • You should try especially hard to avoid New York/JFK airport between March 1 and July 1 this year. The airport will completely close its longest and most heavily used runway for resurfacing and other improvements. Although this runway rehab is clearly necessary, and even overdue, closure is almost sure to increase delays at an airport that suffers enough even when all the runways are operating. If you’re flying JetBlue—and, in my view, it’s the country’s top airline for coach class travel—you pretty much have to use JFK. But if you usually fly other lines, try for Newark or even LaGuardia if schedules permit. And, come July, keep your eyes on the travel news to see if the project really completes by the deadline.
  • Add Air France/KLM to the list of airlines that charge oversize travelers extra. If you can’t fit into a standard seat, with the armrest down and the regular seatbelt fastened, you’ll have to buy a second seat for 75 percent of the regular fare for that seat. This has been a controversial issue since Southwest began charging extra: Some say it’s discriminatory, others say it’s only fair. I’m with the “only fair” crowd: I’ve seen too many travelers suffer because an oversize person in the adjacent seat spilled over into their space. Travelers in economy get precious little room under the best of circumstances, and further encroachment on that limited space is unacceptable. On the other side, if you’re in that oversize group, check competitive airlines that aren’t requiring two seats—yet.

Will any of these new developments improve travel in 2010? Do you think Air New Zealand’s couches are a good idea? And how do you feel about Air France charging oversize travelers extra? Share your thoughts, experiences, and advice by submitting a comment below!

(Editor’s Note: SmarterTravel is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, an operating company of Expedia, Inc. Expedia, Inc. also owns Airfarewatchdog.)

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