Sharing Air New Zealand's Skycouch

Passengers will soon be able to pay extra for one of Air New Zealand's world-first economy class bed-seats but they'll need to share it with their neighbour.

The "Skycouch" combines a row of three seats along the window sides of the aircraft, which can be configured into a bed just wide enough for two people lying on their side.

Chief executive Rob Fyfe says when the airline takes delivery of its first of eight new Boeing 777-300ER jets in November it will redefine long haul travel and set a benchmark.

"For those who choose, the days of sitting in economy and yearning to lie down and sleep are gone," Mr Fyfe said.

"The dream is now a reality, one that you can even share with a travelling companion - just keep your clothes on thanks."

Seats in premium economy and business class have also been improved, and in-flight service will take a step back towards the golden age of air travel with meals and snacks freshly cooked on-board.

The Skycouch is aimed at couples and families prepared to spend about $1400 extra to buy the middle seat in the row of three.

Together the seats can be configured into a level, but not completely even bed due to the seat contours.

To create the bed, the leg rest raises up to fill in the gap between the front of the seat bottom and the back of the seat in front.

A thin mattress is placed on top and full sized pillows are also provided.

At about 1.75 metres long, taller passengers will need to bend their legs to keep their feet from hanging over the end and into the aisle.

The Skycouch has been developed in-house by Air New Zealand designers and engineers, and represents the first real improvement in comfort for economy travellers in more than 20 years.

But only about a quarter of all the economy seats will convert to Skycouches, taking up the first 11 window rows in the economy cabin.

To buy one of the 22 bed-seats passengers will pay the standard economy fare for two seats and receive the middle seat for about half.

Assuming a base fare of $2800 for a return flight to London in June, plus fees and taxes, the total cost would be about $7600.

By comparison a single premium economy seat, which does not recline to a bed, costs nearly $6000 return, and business class lie-flat seat nearly $10,000.

Head of long haul services Ed Sims said the seats had "the potential to generate significant license fees for Air New Zealand in the future."

Standard economy seats will be upgraded with a larger video screen and a cushion that attaches to the headrest.

The seats go on sale in April and will gradually be introduced on the 340-seat 777-300s from the end of this year flying between Auckland and London via Los Angeles.

All long haul aircraft will be refitted with the new cabins early 2012.

For the business traveller and well-heeled, Air New Zealand has also improved the premium economy and business class seats.

Premium economy seats now recline within a hard shell cocoon in a herringbone layout, giving more personal space than the traditional side-by-side arrangement.

But, the only leg support offered is a mini bean bag named Otto.

At the front of the plane, it's a case of evolution rather than revolution. A number of refinements have been made to the Business Premier seat including a more contoured seat, which when folded down to a bed will feature a thicker mattress, and improved in-seat lighting.

A striking a new colour scheme throughout the aircraft moves away from traditional blues and greens to a more luxurious blend of chalk and deep ink colours, to go with a new crew uniform unveiled earlier this month.

Economy seats are covered in black fabric and a white back, while the premium cabins feature pearl white surrounds, and chalk leather seats, more commonly found no private jets.

Air New Zealand will also introduce a new oven technology to the bar-style galleys which will allow food to be freshly prepared on demand for all passengers.

Business class passengers will be able to order a steak done to the liking, in premium economy pizzas can be made to order and for economy passengers, freshly made toasted sandwich. All can be ordered using the in-flight entertainment system.

The new cabin designs were originally intended to be launched on the new generation Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, but production problems has delayed the aircraft by more than two years and to at least early 2013.