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.

Private Space: Travel’s New Guilty Pleasure?

The "coffin" seat on a Cathay Pacific 747

The “coffin” seat on a Cathay Pacific 747

I slept with a man who wasn’t my husband. Before you jump to the wrong conclusion, I’ll add that it was on an international flight and we never touched.

Am I the only one who feels a little exposed when I’ve had a lovely, prolonged chat with my seatmate for the first couple of hours on a flight in business class, then stretch out to sleep a few inches from him? While I do enjoy the opportunity for conversation, I much prefer what my friend calls the coffin, a walled seat in a herringbone configuration, where I cannot view more than a fellow passenger’s feet.

It’s said that time is the new luxury (a thought I agree with). But now, move over time, you have company: Private space is a luxury, too. This is according to Dr. Dieter Zetsche, chairman of the board, Daimler AG and head of Mercedes-Benz Cars, who said during his CES keynote last week: “Quality time and private space will be the true luxury items of the future.” These two commodities wouldn’t be considered luxuries unless they were in short supply.

Nowhere is private space more rare–and coveted–than in air travel. Certainly, economy passengers have no refuge from the masses (except perhaps a moment in the lav). And while the landscape is better for premium passengers, finding pockets of privacy for these travelers can take some effort, too. And often, some funds.

For me, one of the most important aspects of private space is the option for quiet–of not hearing someone else and of not being being heard. I don’t care to listen to others’ cell phone conversations, nor do I wish others to eavesdrop on mine. Uninvited phone conversations floating through the air are like pollution, and airport gates are heavily polluted.

Lounges, while offering the promise of private space, are often crowded and don’t live up to that promise.  A friend of mine once discussed her new job on a cell phone in an airport lounge. When she hung up, a gentleman several chairs away introduced himself and said he was the one she had replaced. Ouch.

Gradually, privacy has been taken away from us, a reality as uncomfortable as sleep deprivation. And when we travel, we experience both!

You’re the only one who knows when and for how long you need private space. But it’s nice to have the option, and the more private space options that can be built into travel, the better.

Maybe you’re lucky enough to be an extrovert and never care about this. But I do. Nothing against you, fellow passenger, but sometimes I just need a little time to myself.

Airfares: What I’m Willing to Pay More For and Not (You’re certain to disagree with one.)

People who whine bother me. And I hear too much whining about ancillary fees. I believe the unbundling of airfares that occurred in the last few years has been a brilliant development. Airlines are finally gaining some financial stability (which benefits passengers), and passengers continue to enjoy low base fares. It makes perfect sense to me that we only pay for what’s important to us.

Earlier this month, I was lucky enough to be on the inaugural flight of American Airlines’ new A321T service between SFO and JFK. (You can read my trip report on The Bay Area Traveler here.) I sat in first class on the way out, and business class on the way back. I am most often a back-of-the-bus passenger, so this was a real treat. And this aircraft and its inflight service is lovely and amenity-heavy. The trip caused me to think about which features on a flight are of particular value to me. (A caveat: I am not a natural spender, whether or not the fare is being footed by me or the company.)

What I’m willing to pay more for:

1. A seat with a view. My flying life changed a few years ago when I switched from being an aisle person to a window person. Previously a stressed passenger all too aware of flying in an aluminum box, I became a relaxed spectator as the amber waves of grain and purple mountains’ majesty moved by. My claustrophobia eased by having a big space to look at over my shoulder. AA’s A321T first class seat is fabulous, don’t get me wrong, and it’s hard to complain about a ginormous seat that is both window and aisle. The first class 1-1 configuration is pure indulgence. But the seat is so darn huge, and the window so far away, that I could hardly see out: the horizon, perhaps, but certainly nothing below the plane. (Apologies: perhaps I’m whining.) In economy, I am happy to pay more for a seat with a good view.

2. Early boarding. Thanks to the relatively recent development of fistfights over carry-on space, I appreciate the knowledge that I don’t have to concern myself with the possibility of gate-checking my bag. An additional perk: Not having to climb over someone (most times) adds to the illusion that I’m having some kind of civilized experience.

3. Personal attention. I appreciate being called by name and having a pleasant chat here and there with the crew in the premium cabins. I hope that’s not my ego talking, but just my human-ness. I wish we could have this option for a fee in coach. Human interaction can make or break an inflight experience for me. Occasionally and randomly, it comes free of charge.

4. Continuous wine pour. I don’t want to sound like I have a drinking problem, but there’s something I like about wine service in the premium classes. It’s certainly not the wine itself. But to have a glass refilled generously without paying feels a bit like I’m at someone’s house and my thoughtful hostess is keeping me comfortable. I realize this is, again, only an illusion, but it’s one I welcome.

What I won’t pay more for:

1. Food. I really don’t care about eating on a plane anymore. I always pack healthy snacks (and meals sometimes), and I like that the new normal requires that I do so. My first class and business meals on the A321T were decent, and there’s something nice about being offered food. But really, I’d rather not. I like healthy, well prepared food choices. And even the best airplane food isn’t tempting enough to make it matter.

2. Entertainment. I have to admit, the jury may be out on this one. The premium cabins on the A321T service have deep choice in their inflight entertainment systems. And I liked getting caught up on things with the “still in theaters” category. But then I didn’t get a speck of work done during my SFO-JFK-SFO trip, and I cracked nary a book. While the entertainment is pleasant, I’m not sure I like that. Perhaps I just need more self-discipline. Something’s wrong when you wish for a moment that the flight were longer so you could catch another movie.

3. The seat. I know I am in the minority on this one—in fact, I’m perhaps the only person on the planet who doesn’t care about seat pitch or recline (exception: a red eye or international flight at night). My legs are short and stretch nicely out in front of me. My rear must be average, because I have a few inches of comfortable air space on either side of me in even the smallest seat. I don’t see what the big deal is for someone my size to sit in a typical airplane seat for five or more hours. A business class seat or better is totally wasted on me. My feet do not reach the ottoman. The recline functions just leave me fiddling with the adjustments—because I can–and usually to no avail, comfort-wise. When my status allows me a free seat in premium economy, I couldn’t care less about the leg room. (But I do like the early boarding, as noted above. Also, sitting in the front of the plane helps me feel less like I’m in a mass experience. If you can’t see those other 200 people, they aren’t there, right?)

Every individual on every flight values a different set of offerings. I love that we pay for what we value. But airlines, please, let’s not get carried away and over-marketize this concept. American’s economy fares are now listed in categories from cheapest to most expensive, named like this:  Choice, Choice Essential, and Choice Plus. With Choice, you get nothing. That feels a little offensive to me, not much of a choice (or with another meaning, not exactly a “choice” option). If you’re giving me nothing but the seat, let’s call it like it is.

What do you value most or least in an inflight experience? (Come on, I know you tall people will have a bone to pick with my willingness to give up leg room….)

My Favorite Seat Innovation

Airplane seat design is finally getting some out-of-the-box thinking. I don’t mean flatter lie-flat seats; I mean completely re-imagining coach seats so they are more passenger-friendly, versatile and light-weight. Unfortunately, much of this is speculative thinking, and whether any of these designs will ever come to market remains to be seen. Airlines—the seat customers, ultimately—carefully monitor an important metric: butts in seats. The more seats, the more butts. So airlines eye the bottom line when considering seat innovation, and most of that is about capacity.

Nevertheless, a couple of the designs I’m excited about: the “Morph” seat is constructed of material like the iconic Aeron Chair and can expand or shrink depending on need (next up: buy 1.5 tickets); and this entry in the James Dyson Award competition, the “AirGo” seat, includes a personal overhead bin right above the seat, even the window seat (wouldn’t that be convenient?).

By far the best innovation, though, is JetBlue’s seemingly small but hugely valuable gesture: a seat that includes a cup holder. I’ve wondered for years why this has not been done. I often refrain from buying a coffee before boarding an early morning flight precisely because it will mean putting the drink on the floor before performing the gymnastics of trying to swing my bag above my head. (Doable, but risky and a little icky.) Also, during the flight, I am cramped enough without being forced to keep the tray table down just to hold a beverage. What a luxury to stretch out (I use that term very loosely) with a book or for a mid-beverage nap, with that Diet Coke safely tucked into a holder. JetBlue’s inflight product was indeed in need of a refresh, and this is a particularly welcome innovation.  Thanks, JetBlue.

Southwest Airlines puts civility back into boarding

In the last month, I have had occasion to fly Southwest eight times, unusual because I have always disliked WN and do everything in my power to avoid it. My distaste, I recently realized, has been based primarily on open seating. Everyone has their airline hot button, the factor that provokes a guttural reaction, and for me, it’s seat selection.

This comes after too many years of transcon flights when my kids were babies and toddlers, a time when seating security–knowing exactly where we were sitting and the configuration–reduced onboard stress.  (For years my husband and I sat 2/2 behind each other so that our then-toddler could kick the seat of his older brother sitting in front of him, instead of some kind but easily irritated stranger.)

Southwest, despite pressure from loyal fans/customers to switch to assigned seating, has repeatedly recommitted to its open seating policy based on cost/efficiency savings. (Remember, WN is a low-cost, not low-fare, airline.) But what they have done very smartly is to evolve the process so that open seating has become painless. Remember the days when you received a plastic boarding pass at the gate, which determined when you could board and scramble for a seat? Fast forward to a seamless and well-organized A, B and C-group assignment given at online checkin, with options for Early Bird Check-In for a fee and A-group assignments for A-List (elite) Rapid Rewards members and certain business fares. Once you have your group letter and number, clear and simple signage and announcements get everyone lined up in a fast and efficient way. Passengers know the process (it’s easy even for first-timers) and the mood at the gate is relaxed and “luv-ly.”

Legacy carriers, meanwhile, have commoditized  seat selection. Getting an aisle or window seat without paying an ancillary fee has become an art. And messy boarding processes have heightened the stressful fight for overhead bin space. Airlines have experimented with myriad boarding procedures, leaving passengers confused about how boarding will occur (and how your group number is determined) and jockeying for position at the gate. My favorite trick (and it’s appalling that I’ve even devised such a trick)  is to begin the boarding process to the side of the gate agent, where I can slip in first for my group without appearing ruthless.

This new chaos at legacy carrier gates, ironically, has put Southwest back in my good graces because it has created a trusted, less stressful boarding environment. On Southwest, I have options for bettering my boarding position so once onboard I can choose a great seat. I know what to expect at the gate. And so do my fellow passengers. I had to laugh recently when I saw United had introduced group boarding lanes at SFO gates, not unlike Southwest’s.  The tides have changed, and I now call myself a Southwest fan (as long as I can control my position in the A group).