Business class lite: Review of Air New Zealand's Skycouch from Auckland to Houston
During the COVID-19 crisis, our team has temporarily ceased taking review trips and we are not publishing new flight or hotel reviews. While bringing our readers unbiased, detailed reviews of travel experiences is one of our core missions, now is not the time. We all love to travel and know you do too. So, to help keep you entertained — and maybe inspire you — we are republishing a selection of the most popular reviews on our site, including the one below. Hopefully, this will help you once we’re all ready to start booking trips again.
This review was originally published in May 2018, before we added scores to our evaluation system.
During the crisis, Air New Zealand is operating a reduced schedule, like most of the world's airlines. Air New Zealand 's Boeing 787-9s, like the one we flew for this article, currently serve the United States mostly on flights from Auckland to Los Angeles and back.
Air New Zealand markets its Skycouch product as the world's first economy-class seat that can be turned into a couch. But Air New Zealand also hawks its multipurpose value as "seating, a couch or even a play area" or for "you and your friend or family member" to stretch out. Huh? What does any of that mean? We're still talking about air travel, right?
With all that mystery around what looked like a regular row of coach seats, I wanted to see what the product was actually like for myself. So I booked a ticket on one of the carrier's 787-9s from Auckland to Houston.
Booking Skycouch wasn't straightforward, even with my fairly flexible travel dates. I ended up booking directly on Air New Zealand's website, getting a one-way ticket in Skycouch from Auckland (AKL) to Houston (IAH) and then to Newark (EWR) with Star Alliance partner United. In total, the trip cost $2,611, which I put on the Platinum Card® from American Express in order to earn 5x points on airfare booked directly with the airlines. Starting Jan. 1, 2021, earn 5x points on up to $500,000 on these purchases per calendar year. The ticket earned 13,055 Membership Rewards points, worth $248 based on TPG's most recent valuations.
Instead of setting a separate price for Skycouch, Air New Zealand charged for one economy seat plus an additional fee (which depended on how many people were splitting the Skycouch). In my case, as a solo traveler, the ticket included AKL-IAH-EWR and cost $1,212. Then, in order to reserve a Skycouch, I paid an additional $1,399 on top of that ticket.
If you're traveling with other people, you'll be required to pay for two or more economy seats plus a smaller add-on for the Skycouch reservation. That additional cost varies depending on route.
As one might expect, Air New Zealand can offer only a limited number of Skycouches per flight. Not only can it offer fewer seats to other passengers when there are many Skycouches booked, but it's not exactly a sound business model to offer to an entire flight. For example, if three people occupied my row as designed and all paid the same I did, Air New Zealand would have gotten $3,637. But for just me taking up the same number of seats, I paid $2,611.
For my flight, there was only one Skycouch left for booking, and it wasn't displaying on the Air New Zealand site, forcing me to call the airline and book over the phone. The agent waived the phone booking fee because I couldn't see the Skycouch on the site.
He said that while you can't use miles from any of its Star Alliance partners, such as United MileagePlus, to book the Skycouch, you could use Air New Zealand Airpoints Dollars. Each Airpoints Dollar is the equivalent of one New Zealand dollar (or about 60 U.S. cents in April 2020), so this one-way fare would have cost the same in Airpoints Dollars that I paid in cash, 3,930 NZD.
Note, however, that Airpoints Dollars are difficult to earn, as they don't transfer from any major currency with the exception of Marriott Rewards, which transfer at a 200:1 ratio. So, for this ticket, you'd need... wait for it... 786,000 Marriott Rewards points.
I credited this Air New Zealand flight to Star Alliance partner United Airlines. In all, the booking earned me 7,418 Premier Qualifying Miles and 5,564 redeemable United miles.
Upon arriving at Auckland Airport, I headed right for the large Air New Zealand check-in area. The airline had no specific signage for Skycouch check-in, but an agent told me that Skycouch passengers didn't have priority check-in privileges. But, the line moved fast and the bag drop process was simple enough.
My reservation wasn't showing on the kiosk screen as including Skycouch, but once it printed out my boarding pass, it clearly displayed Skycouch.
Interestingly, as a Skycouch passenger, you're only assigned one seat. In my case, that seat was 39C, an aisle seat toward the front of the economy cabin. Skycouch passengers still do get all three seats an economy row even though the boarding pass seat assignment might lead them to think otherwise.
Being a Skycouch passenger didn't give me much — in reality, nothing — in terms of benefits on the ground. Not only was there no designated check-in lane, but I also didn't get lounge access or priority boarding.
Instead, I turned to my Priority Pass membership (thanks to enrolling through my Platinum Card from American Express). Auckland Airport only offered one Priority Pass lounge, the Strata Lounge, in the International Terminal.
I had fairly low expectations, but to my surprise the Strata was one of the best Priority Pass lounges I've ever been to.
The lounge was well-lit, accentuated by calming tones. Not only was it aesthetically pleasing — from the seating areas to the business areas — but it was large, with plenty of space to stretch out.
The buffet offered a wide range of options, which were changed and refreshed several times during my short stay. Because I was departing around dinnertime, there were a number of both hot and cold options — rice noodles, pastries, chicken and beef dishes and much more. Plus, much to my liking, there was lots of dessert.
As for beverages, there was just a self-service bar. If I were to critique anything about the lounge, it would be that it didn't offer a full-service bar. That said, it still had plenty to offer, from fresh juices to soda, a full espresso machine and lots of beer and wine.
In addition to the food and beverages and comfortable feel, the lounge also featured complimentary showers, Wi-Fi and a business area.
About an hour before boarding, I left the Strata Lounge and headed for the gate, which was about a 15-minute walk away. As I mentioned, Skycouch passengers didn't have early boarding privileges. Instead, I boarded along with the rest of the economy passengers.
Because each of the gates in the Pier B terminal, which was somewhat detached from the main International Terminal, was separate from others around it, there was less congestion in the boarding area than at other airports. I found the boarding process to be incredibly efficient and painless, even for a general all-economy boarding call.
The only perk I got on the ground as a Skycouch passenger was from the gate agent, who said, "Enjoy Skycouch!" as he scanned my ticket.
Upon boarding, we were greeted with the Dreamliner's purple-pink mood lighting. I found it to be calming and enjoyable, though I could see how some might think it overwhelming.
Cabin and Seat
The cabin on this particular Air New Zealand Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, registration ZK-NZL, featured the three-cabin interior.
At the front of the aircraft were 27 lie-flat seats in a 1-1-1 configuration. Each of the seats offered 79 to 80 inches of pitch, was 22 inches wide and 79.5 inches long in its lie-flat position.
The premium-economy cabin featured 33 recliner seats in a 2-3-2 configuration. Each offered 41 to 42 inches of pitch, 19 inches of width and 8.7 inches of recline.
Finally, the largest of the three cabins (the one with Skycouch) was the economy cabin. In total, there were 215 economy seats in a 3-3-3 configuration, with each of the seats offering 31 to 33 inches of pitch, 17.2 inches of width and 4.7 inches of recline.
It's worth noting that not all seats in the 789's economy cabin were equipped for Skycouch. In fact, only rows 37 through 44 on the port side and rows 36 through 40 on the starboard side of the aircraft could accommodate the special seating arrangement. Seats in the center of the aircraft couldn't offer Skycouch at all, which was probably a plus, as the cabin wall provided invaluable support.
During boarding, my Skycouch didn't look any different from the rest of the economy seats. Each of the three seats in the row were outfitted with a pillow, blanket and set of headphones. So even though I was the only passenger in my row, I got three pillows, three blankets and three sets of headphones. I didn't need three sets of everything, but still found triple the pillows and blankets to be a huge benefit.
If you didn't know what you were looking for, the Skycouch rows looked like normal economy seats. But when you looked a little closer at the bottom of the seat, you saw thick footrest-like elements that folded out. When the seats were upright, the footrest foldouts were uncomfortable, as you couldn't put your feat beneath your own seat.
Almost as soon as I took my seat, a friendly flight attendant made her way over to the seat to greet me. She asked if I'd ever flown in the Skycouch before, then told me to watch an instruction video and read the safety sheet, which explained how to fold the couch out and use the seatbelt. Because I was traveling alone, the flight attendant brought me a kit of seatbelt accessories but told me I would only need the "cuddle belt," essentially an extender that allowed me to remain buckled in to the seatback in front of me.
The couch could hold solo travelers, couples or families of up to four. Yes, four, though that would be a tight squeeze even for an adult and infant.
On my flight, most of the available Skycouch rows were occupied by Skycouch passengers, though I was the only solo traveler. Both in front of me and directly behind me were couples. The couple directly behind me had their two kids share a couch in the row behind them. I could see how the couch made sense for families: It's less expensive than purchasing a business-class seat for every member, and you get to spread out and arrive well rested.
Two buttons built into the armrest put the seat in its couch position. One reclined the seat, just like in any other economy seat. The other button extended the footrest. Instead of hassling with all three of the seats myself, though, I just asked a flight attendant to make up the couch for me when I was ready to turn in.
So, just how big is the Skycouch? It officially measured 5 feet, 1 inch, though it ended up being longer if you added in the space between the edge of the window seat and the cabin wall. (The armrest by the cabin wall lifted up, too.) For me, at 5 feet, 7 inches, the Skycouch was the perfect size.
I could lie flat and comfortably diagonally, just as I would be able to in many business-class lie-flat seats. But one of the biggest benefits of the couch was how wide it was. In its couch position, the couch measured 29 inches from the back of the seat to the end of the footrest. Plus, you could get a few more inches of space if you reclined the three seats back, making the couch feel airy and open. In all, I found the couch extremely comfortable for both sleeping and lounging. I had space to lie flat, to curl up and to sit up with my back propped against the cabin wall.
What made the Skycouch most enjoyable, though, was the bedding. On top of the three flimsy pillows that were on the three seats were two much fluffier pillows in the linen kit. Using the combined five pillows, I had an incredibly comfortable setup. Plus, with the three blankets in my stash, I was comfortably warm, as well.
The one drawback of the Skycouch product is that it's not the most private. Air New Zealand recommended that I sleep with my head closest to the cabin wall, which meant I was facing outward and in clear view of anyone in the other 200-plus seats wandering around the economy cabin. However, the raised armrests blocked the sightlines of those directly in front or behind me.
In addition, I quickly found out how not to store your belongings in a Skycouch seat. I usually keep my things under the seat in front of me, but when the Skycouch was fully extended, the edge of the footrest was almost entirely up against the seatback in front with maybe 1 inch to spare. So, when I went to grab my headphones, I had to partially collapse one of the footrests in order to reach my bag. My advice? Place belongings you might need during the flight in the overhead bin — including your shoes — so they're easily accessible when you walk around the cabin or use the lavatory.
Our bird was a new Dreamliner that hadn't even reached its first birthday. ZK-NZL was assembled in Charleston and delivered to Air New Zealand in October 2017. Not surprisingly, given that it was a newer aircraft, I found the seat and its features to be working properly and without any noticeable wear and tear. The only technical issue I had with the seat was when we were preparing for landing and one of the footrests wouldn't collapse, requiring a flight attendant to wrestle with it for a minute before it finally closed up.
Where I think the Skycouch product could be improved significantly is with its onboard signage. When I boarded, I took the window seat in my three-seat row. Once boarding was complete, a man sitting in the middle set of three seats moved over to the aisle seat of my row. I kindly told him that I had all three seats reserved. It'd be nice if the airline had something to note that the row was completely reserved so that Skycouch passengers could avoid potentially awkward situations like these.
I'd also like for the couch to have some kind of mechanism closest to the aisle so you or your belongings don't protrude into the aisle. As someone who tends to move a lot in my sleep, I was afraid that my feet would be completely obstructing the aisle when I woke up.
The Skycouch was a comfortable ride for one person, but would have been tight for two adults. There are basically two options for couples: one person upright and the other lying down on the couch, or both lying horizontally on the couch. If you choose the latter, you better be ready to cuddle. (The don't call the seatbelt extender the cuddle belt for nothing!) I could even hear the couple behind me plan how they were going to split their time, with the woman explaining to her partner, "You get five hours, and then I get five hours."
For me, a solo traveler, I found it not just comfortable but enjoyable. For parts of the flight, I found myself not wanting it to end. With a comfortable setup and room to move around, I would rate the Skycouch as being on par with — if not better than — some business-class products.
Food and Beverage
Meal service began with a round of water soon after we reached 10,000 feet. Much like the on-the-ground aspects of being a Skycouch traveler, I didn't get special meal choices. But since the Skycouch seats were toward the front of the cabin, I usually had first choice of meals.
My choices were chicken curry or beef with caramelized onions. I chose the chicken curry dish, which was served with rice, a side salad and ice cream. I found the chicken itself to be quite nice, with plenty of flavor and a consistency that wasn't too rubbery. (It definitely tasted better than it looked!) The side salad, which was yellow and warm, was subpar. To be honest, I'm not even sure what it was. Despite that unidentifiable side dish, my main meal was tasty, and the service itself was efficient.
About two hours before landing, flight attendants came around the cabin once again for breakfast service. Choices for breakfast included scrambled eggs, chicken sausage and beans or a cold continental breakfast. Historically, I haven't had much luck with economy-cabin eggs, so I decided to go for the cold continental breakfast, which consisted of cereal, fresh fruit, orange juice and yogurt. It wasn't particularly filling but the fruit was fresh.
Breakfast was served while my couch was still extended, meaning I could still lounge while eating. Using the middle seat's tray table, I was able to sit upright with my back against the wall and still spread out. It was almost like a true business-class experience.
There were five lavatories for economy, three directly behind the Skycouch-equipped cabin and two more all the way at the rear of the aircraft. The lavs were actually pretty spacious and... fun — check out that butterfly wallpaper! If you have a choice, choose the one closest to the cabin wall, as it's larger than those in the center of the aircraft.
The in-flight entertainment system was standard. The 9-inch seatback touchscreen offered a crisp picture and was responsive. The content included new releases and some classics.
Each of the IFE screens had a USB port that became incredibly useful when the Skycouch was extended, as the AC power outlets located below the seats were then inaccessible. Speaking of power outlets, each row had two to share between three passengers. In my case, since I was the only one in the row, I had two to myself.
I absolutely loved my first Skycouch experience — so much so that I hope to fly the product again to New Zealand. I'd consider the hard product to be better than even some business-class products. The bed, pillows, blankets and other amenities made everything truly comfortable: I slept great, and when I woke up it was fantastic to be able to stretch out and lounge in my seat for a while.
It could be made better, though, if the airline upped the ground experience. Things such as priority check-in and early boarding would make the experience that much better. Plus, Skycouch could be marketed better — most of the other passengers were puzzled by the contraptions.
There's definitely a high retention rate among those who fly Skycouch. Those seated around me had flown it multiple times, and I don't blame them. No, you won't get business-class amenities like silverware and place settings. But you get plenty of comfort, which is arguably the most important thing when it comes to commercial air travel. At $2,611, I would much prefer a Skycouch seat to a pricier business-class seat (which averages around $3,500 on the same route). I'll spend those saved dollars on wine tasting in Marlborough.
All photos by the author.