The Lie-Flat Seat That Doesn’t Work

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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.

Running an Airline or Building Cars: The Perils of Legacy

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This weekend my family and I toured the factory in Fremont, Calif., where Tesla Motors produces its electric cars. I was enthralled.

Through it all, I couldn’t help but make the airline comparison. Tesla certainly blows away the automotive competition, but they couldn’t have done it without starting from the ground up. Airline upstarts like Virgin America have also blown away their legacy competitors in almost every metric, in large part because they had the luxury of starting from scratch.

Some examples of what sets Tesla apart:

  • We saw a seven-story stamping press Tesla bought in Germany. The manufacturer said it would take one year to dismantle the behemoth machine and move it to California. The Tesla folks said, “Too slow, we’ll figure that out internally.” And it took them just four months.
  • We saw the tour leader balance an entire side-panel of aluminum (the whole length of a car!) on one finger—it’s that lightweight. Yet the Model S is the safest vehicle ever tested by the U.S. government, in several cases breaking testing machines when trying to reach the limits of the car’s chassis.
  • We saw workers hand-polishing metal pieces with care, as the tour guide shared the company narrative about how the cars are works of art that require real craftsmanship. Those polishing seemed to actually believe the narrative.

But more than specifics, there was an air of pride and excellence that something special was going on there—that as a collective, they were achieving the unachievable because they were willing to think outside the box and give it their all.

Here’s where I got a little sad for the traditional auto manufacturers. And the legacy airlines.

We were witnessing all this in a building that had been sold to Tesla in 2010 by NUMMI, a joint venture of Toyota and General Motors that failed.

NUMMI employees hated working in that building, so the first thing Tesla did was paint the place with white, gray and red epoxy, top to bottom. They added beautiful rest areas and showers, because they found many workers rode their bikes to work. They offered free and healthy snacks and drinks. They’re planning a huge vegetable garden where workers can take home what they grow.

Tesla’s focus on employees, technology, and capitalization/investment has allowed them to build a product that is universally agreed upon to be extraordinary. And which means they are able to grow despite no traditional marketing, just word of mouth. As you can tell, it works—I’m already an evangelist.

Yesterday, just as I was contemplating the sad correlation between the auto and airline industries, I read this remarkable story about a former United Global Services flier and how Virgin America stole his heart and loyalty.

Perhaps the ultimate challenge is not to create a groundbreaking product. The ultimate challenge is to create this within the confines of a legacy infrastructure, culture and workforce.

Photo: Flickr/Maurizio Pesce

Cool Stuff: Behind the Scenes at Cathay Pacific

Nothing is more fun than going behind the curtain at an airline, airport or hotel, to see how things really work. Luckily, travel writers get to do just that every now and then.

So begins my recent post for The Bay Area Traveler (thebat-SF.com) about the day I spent behind the scenes at Cathay Pacific in Hong Kong. Jump on over and take a look, to see the 10 things I thought were cool on my tour.