From "cattle class" to "optimal class"

Today, the majority of airline passengers choose economy class for air travel. For long-haul passengers, such a scenario is nothing new to them: walking through narrow aisles and squeezing themselves into crowded seats. If you happen to be tall, your knees will unavoidably hit the back of the seat in front of you. After huddling in the seat for a long time, your legs become numb and you have to pull yourself out from the seat and stand in the aisle for a while. From the health perspective, taking economy class over time may lead to “economy class syndrome” – thrombosis due to long-time static motion. Because of this, economy class is notoriously known as the “cattle class”. The expensive cost of first class and business class are intimidating for those who aspire to a comfortable journey. As the competition in the airline industry continues intensifying, Air New Zealand came to IDEO with a challenge: improve the economy class experience and turn “cattle class” into “optimal class” in order to appeal to economy class passengers, who account for the majority of airline passengers, and to set up a new benchmark in the industry.

A new challenge for Air New Zealand

Air New Zealand is the national carrier and the largest airline in New Zealand. It services domestic flights as well as overseas flights to Australia, South Pacific, Asia, North America and Britain, including both passenger flights and cargo flights. More than 10 years ago, Air New Zealand was on the verge of going into bankruptcy. By 2009, it was selected by the readers of Conde Nast Traveler as the second best long-haul airline in the world, and was named “Airline of The Year” the by Air Transport World, the Academy Awards of the airline industry. What’s more, Air New Zealand became the first subscriber of Boeing 787-9, the Dreamliner, in 2013.

Air New Zealand approached IDEO to help redesign the entire long-haul experience, including the layout and facilities in the cabin (ie. the seating in the economy and business class), as well as service and entertainment system.

New seating configuration allows for privacy or social interaction.

IDEO's work

During their research IDEO and Air New Zealand together looked into every aspect of the cabin, and interviewed passengers and cabin crew. Through in-depth interviews and interactions, designers realized that as the national carrier, Air New Zealand should reflect New Zealand’s culture in all its services. After spending a month in the South and North Islands of New Zealand, the team gained deep understanding of New Zealand’s service characteristics – generous, humble and democratic. IDEO made life-size seating prototypes and applied different seating configurations to the cabin design of Boeing 787. They also created videos, simulated different service scenarios and articulated challenges and opportunities. As a result, Air New Zealand thoroughly refreshed its facility, service and technological strategy.

In terms of facility, the economy class embraces “Sky Couch”, which allows three adjacent seats to transform into a simple bed, as armrests disappear and footrest appears, for two adults to lie down and sleep. In this way, economy class passengers can relax and stretch out during a long-haul flight, a luxury exclusive to first class passengers only in the past.

In terms of service, the new policy and regulation give passengers more control over their space and time. The newly designed space also creates more opportunities for cabin crew and passengers to interact and talk, putting an emphasis on people. In terms of technology, an in-flight video and entertainment system is installed to provide a platform for passengers to share photos, exchange travel experience and give recommendations. With this system, passengers can share their travel plans at the beginning of a journey and keep their cherishable memories alive over time.


“With the longest hauls, we had a greater obligation than any other airline to give passengers more,” said Ed Sims, then Air New Zealand’s General Manager of international Airline. “We wanted a creative agency to really challenge our own creative talent [and] IDEO was a standout. [With their help] we’ve reinvented everything we do and given choice and control back to the passenger.”

“Sky Couch”, which marks perhaps the most significant progress in the airline industry over the past decades, was featured in the New York Times. It also generated a new term, “cuddle class”, as a nickname for “Sky Couch”. On December 22, 2010, Air New Zealand’s first 777-300ER passenger airliner with the “Sky Couch” seat onboard was delivered and put into use in Seattle, USA. It flied from Auckland to Melbourne on January11, 2011.

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