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.

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

Travel Tip: Build a Time-Pocket Habit

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  • On each flight, a business traveler jots an entry into his journal while he waits for the plane to finish boarding.
  • A mother gets her two kids ready for day care 10 minutes before they need to get in the car each morning, so all three can play together for those 10 minutes before embarking.

These scenarios were mentioned on two different podcasts I listened to this week about productivity and time (I may need to lighten up on my podcast consumption!). They struck me as brilliant. Both examples have triggers to remember and repeat the habit (boarding a plane and the start of the commute). I’m a huge believer in the cumulative effect of habitually repeated actions: Results, long-term can be astounding.

Tiny things are so much easier to do and to keep up with than big, hairy, audacious goals. And they fit so nicely into these little, previously wasted, time pockets.

You and I are in luck, because business travel includes so many of these time pockets, time otherwise known as waiting.

Is there something you wish you could do but don’t because you don’t think you have the time? Start with a baby-step action and fit it to a travel time-pocket.

Some baby-step actions towards something bigger:

  • If you’ve been wanting to start a blog: Add one post idea to a running list of topics you want to write about. (Sometimes the hardest part of blogging is to figure out what you want to write.)
  • Research links increased happiness with gratitude cultivation, so you’ve been meaning to keep a gratitude journal: Jot down three things that went well on each trip.
  • You’d like to up your professionalism: Hand-write a quick note of thanks to someone you met with on the trip.
  • If you’ve been wanting to organize your photos: Move 10 recent photos into folders you’ve created. (Or one that I’d like to incorporate is to delete duplicate, poor or useless photos recently taken.)
  • If you’ve been meaning to become more active in social media: Send one tweet.

Now pick a trigger, depending on whether your action requires 30 seconds or five minutes. Aside from plane boarding time, others might be:

  • The wait for a hotel elevator. (Come on, we know you’re spending that time checking yourself out in that big mirror.)
  • After dinner, when you return to your hotel room. (Who doesn’t have five minutes here?)
  • Taxi time or waiting for the valet to bring your car. (Valets take forever, or at least it seems that way.)
  • If you’re not at the front of the plane, the wait in line to deplane. (I’ve never ever seen anyone use this time productively except for checking email.)

These things can add up to boost your travel productivity! I want to begin a habit of always tweeting a photo from the airport gate, a place with endless photo ops. Closer to home, I’ve been taking advantage of a little time pocket: When I heat water for tea (which I do at least a few times a day), I put the cup in the microwave, punch in two minutes, and while I wait, I swing a kettlebell I keep nearby. A painless way to build a little exercise into the day…and surprisingly effective.

The glorification of busy-ness concerns me. We have more time than we think, and I’m working on having clear priorities and intentionality in how I spend it. How about you?

Photo: Flickr/Switchology

I’d Love to Start my Work Day with this Leader

Extraordinary inflight service: Every airline aspires to it, but few pull it off. I’ve written and read a number of articles about how Asian carriers are able to offer a superior soft inflight product. Much is attributed to hiring practices. But that can’t be the whole story, because the grueling lifestyle of a flight attendant could quickly wear down even the youngest, sweetest person.

Last week I had the opportunity to go behind the scenes at Cathay Pacific’s Hong Kong operation. On this visit, I met the airline’s secret weapon, an inflight service manager named Crystal. Here’s how she (and others like her) prepares cabin crews to deliver what they call “service straight from the heart.”

After checking in and gathering the paperwork, the crew meets in a conference room to get acquainted. Sometimes the group is quiet, and she has the next 20 minutes to excite them. Conversely, sometimes there’s a hyper individual or two, and she works to calm them or share their energy amidst the full group.

More measurable tasks follow. She checks the languages spoken—crews are assigned to ensure at least one flight attendant on the flight can speak every language represented on the passenger list. She also checks the experience level of every flight attendant, so she knows who will still be learning and may need special mentoring.

Then she’ll ask a safety question: How are oven fires handled? How do we treat nosebleeds? Each flight attendant feels a great deal of pressure when called on to answer correctly, and after they answer, sometimes Crystal will add an anecdote about an actual experience she’s had, to follow up and add more context.

Then, it’s off to customs and the airplane. CX in Hong Kong has a customs/security facility within its operations center, so crews are bussed straight from Cathay City to the aircraft. (Some airlines actually prefer to have their crews seen walking through the airport.)

During the flight, Crystal keeps an eye on things. She says, “Being the best is not doing everything perfectly. We all make mistakes. We help each other fix problems and learn something.” The inflight service manager gives marks to every flight attendant for his/her performance on the flight, and prizes are awarded for those who score well on this and other feedback like customer compliments.

I have to say, I was totally impressed by Crystal. I would love to start my work day under the leadership of an individual like this. And there’s no doubt in my mind that she is able to evoke “service straight from the heart:” from all who fly with her. Well done, Cathay Pacific and Crystal. Now, if only some of the American legacy carriers could pull this off….

SFO–TPE, or 777s and a Flat World

Saturday I attended a ceremony to send off United Airlines’ inaugural flight from San Francisco to Taipei. It was a party! United decorated the boarding area with paper lanterns and served dim sum and Chinese-style coffee, while brightly costumed characters circulated. United and airport brass spoke, shook hands and maximized photo ops.

Introducing a route like SFO-TPE is more than a marketing play: It’s an economic and political event. San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee spoke and, with seemingly genuine affection, reminded the audience that Taipei and San Francisco are sister cities. The two cities’ and nations’ economies will be greased by expanded air service between them, he said. (SFO-TPE was already served by EVA Air, which is based in Taiwan, China Airlines, US Airways/American and Delta.)

That day, the plane was full, and passengers ranged from business celebrities to just plain folks on vacation (or so I surmise). Mayor Lee planned to travel on the flight but had to back out when he came down with a cold: doctor’s orders. No doubt many passengers were unaware this was an inaugural flight until they arrived at the gate party.

I too often take for granted the fact that air travel fuels our international economy. This event reminded me that the world would not be flat if it weren’t for hundreds of 777s cruising the heavens every day.