The Lie-Flat Seat That Doesn’t Work


It was a fantasy, for sure: A fully horizontal night of sleep during the long flight from San Francisco to Auckland—at not much more than an economy fare. Last month, my husband and I flew that route on Air New Zealand, and I was admittedly smug about what I thought was the best-kept secret in the airline industry: the Skycouch.

The Skycouch works like this: You buy two lowest-fare economy tickets, then pay a single upcharge (for us, $600). You now are guaranteed the middle seat will be empty, and the three seats in your row will fold out to create a bed. Note that the seatbacks do not move, but instead, a segment folds up by your feet like a recliner’s footrest to create the flat bed. You sleep together (recommended for couples only!) perpendicular to the aisle.

The Skycouch was going to get our trip off to a remarkable start, I thought giddily.

My elation about the prospects of the Skycouch—not to mention the fact that Joe and I were embarking on a much-anticipated 10 days without the cares of children, work or life—floated us through a pre-flight celebratory glass of wine and a relaxed boarding process. Then we arrived at our row. Hmm. I quickly sized up the seat pitch and could clearly see this was going to be neither as spacious nor romantic as the photos on Air New Zealand’s website made me think.

When the cabin lights dimmed and we prepped the “couch,” we raised eyebrows at each other. Joe is 6′ and slim. I’m 5’4″ and relatively small. Yet this would be tricky. As we put up the footrests to create the bed, it didn’t take a scientist to calculate what a tight squeeze this would be. I’ll spare you the details of the acrobatics required to get in position, but 10 minutes and several tries later, we were wedged in a “spoon” position in the space, our four feet in the aisle, with my backside tight up against the seat backs and Joe’s nose about one inch from the tray table.

IMG_2219Now we had to attach the seat belt. Air New Zealand has very cleverly packaged special seatbelts for the Skycouch. We picked what they called the “cuddle belt” and Joe contorted himself to hook it to the special clip on our middle seat, then locked it into the hook below the middle seat in front of us.

An optimist by nature, at this point I thought, “OK, the hard part is done. Time to sleep.” I failed to take into account one very important factor: heat.

About 10 minutes later, warmed quickly by being wedged tight up against the furnace of Joe, I was dying. I whispered, “I’m boiling up. I have to take off my sweater.” Since we had no wiggle room—literally–this would require new acrobatics. Joe contorted himself to unhook the cuddle belt. I inched myself into a sitting position—which couldn’t be accomplished without Joe doing the same. I peeled the sweater off. Acrobatics resumed and the cuddle belt was clicked back in.

It shouldn’t surprise you that about 15 minutes later, Joe was the one sweating, and we repeated the same maneuvers so he could remove his sweater. Humpf.

About two hours later, unable to even toss and turn, the only things asleep were our arms that were wedged beneath us. We decided to put two seats back into upright position to sleep sitting up. Which was actually much better.

The Skycouch is an example of a brilliant idea on paper. Or perhaps it was conceived (by the otherwise-admirable design firm, IDEO) when seat pitch was bigger. For us, though, it was so uncomfortable that it made sleeping sitting up seem like a pleasure. We had new appreciation for being in position to control the temperature, feel all our body parts and twist and turn at will.

Oh well. Another airline hope dashed. Happily, the Skycouch experience was the only disappointment on what was an extraordinary trip. And, in fairness, our Air New Zealand experience was otherwise lovely.

On our flight home, we embraced the current culture of gratitude mania and reveled in our fully-upright seats. Less sleep, more movies: that works, too.

Wheels Up: A Reverie

15367351831_c317b87644_zA random encounter with a company name today sent me into a brief reverie: Wheels Up. That’s the New York-based private aviation membership company in the news because it’s sponsoring American Pharoah, the 2015 Kentucky Derby winner and the racehorse favored to win the Belmont Stakes.

Wheels up, I repeated in my head.

Those two words are magical, I think, because of what they represent. There’s nothing quite like the feeling when a plane’s wheels finally lift from the runway. It’s a split second of relief, hope and lightness. It’s a miracle. Wheels up. Aviation’s equivalent of om.

Now, back to work.

Photo: Flickr/Peter Gronemann

Santa’s 747

IMG_12752014 threw some major personal challenges my way, and by the time I got to the finish line this December, I was just plain beat. I gave myself a rest, and, right on cue, an experience came my way that was pretty magical and a reminder of the wonder of travel and how lucky I am to do the work I do. The big surprise was that it was wrapped in United Airlines packaging.

Here’s my account of the best flight of the year, an article that appeared earlier this month on

Warm wishes for very a happy holiday.

Photo: Nancy Branka

Chengdu and Chicago?

8720092834_d440bbc958_zHuh? you may wonder from the headline. Well, I’m catching up on posts about my trip on United’s inaugural flight from SFO to Chengdu, China:

My piece on Chengdu and whether it compares to Chicago went up on SFGate yesterday. You can check it out here to learn about my impressions of the Sichuan province’s capital. (Spoiler alert: Chicago and Chengdu don’t compare!)

Also, a post about my love for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner is on TravelSkills, here.

Photo: Flickr/Paul Wolneykien

Why I Bought Melatonin Today

IMG_0349Today I bought a bottle of melatonin. It’s a grape-flavored bottle of hope. Getting a good night’s sleep has become increasingly elusive for me, despite observing best practices. Add travel to the mix—including crossing the dateline a few times—and my trip to The Vitamin Shoppe to talk with a sales clerk about melatonin dosage was long overdue.

Earlier this month, I flew on a United 787 from San Francisco to Chengdu, China, and the BusinessFirst seat could not have been more comfortable, perfectly conducive to getting a good deal of sleep. (I’m a hardy traveler and pride myself on having flown in economy from SFO to Delhi, curled up against the wall, with nary a complaint. Lie-flat is a luxury to be savored.)

There’s more to sleep on planes than the seat, though. There’s strategy: When and for how long? Aided by wine, Ambien or au natural? On this flight from SFO to Chengdu, I took my cues from Olivier, my seatmate. We’d had a long conversation, so I knew he flies to Chengdu (and Asia) frequently—a jet lag master. When I saw it was lights out for him, I put on my eye mask and pulled up the duvet. I only slept a couple of hours at most (as he did), but I wanted to make sure I was tired when we landed that evening, so I could get to sleep the first night in the hotel. I noticed others waited until later in the flight and slept longer, and I wondered if that was a better or worse strategy.

On the way back, I slept a good six hours and arrived feeling refreshed at 8 a.m. in San Francisco. It helps to be exhausted from a trip, and I find I usually sleep better on the way home. I experienced no jet lag, despite staying up into the wee hours that night on return.

What got me thinking about melatonin was when Olivier suggested I begin taking it two days before leaving Chengdu to prevent the west-to-east jet lag. Of course I had not brought any with me to Chengdu, and to purchase it there would have been a major project. But the conversation reminded me that melatonin may help with my nonplane sleep issues—at home and in hotels. While in Chengdu, I did not sleep well, despite staying in one of the most lovely and comfortable rooms ever. And I notice I toss and turn in most hotels, even without a time zone change, as well as in my own bed.

I’m pinning a lot of hope on my little purple bottle, but suspect it will not work major miracles, just minor. Do you use a sleep aid when you travel? And if you have sleep strategies for flights or jet lag advice, please share in the comments.

(Photo: Nancy Branka)