Airlines' clever seats bid for attention

CUDDLE CLASS: Lie-flat seats for long-haul passengers willing to pay a bit extra.
CUDDLE CLASS: Lie-flat seats for long-haul passengers willing to pay a bit extra.

Airline innovations - Air New Zealand's "cuddle class" Skycouch, for instance - are often a clever and effective form of attention-seeking, suggests a savvy expert on industry trends.

"It's a way for an airline to be noticed in a cluttered marketplace," says Raymond Kollau, founder of website, which monitors new developments in the aviation industry.

"You may never use the particular service that's being written about but you'll probably remember the airline and think of it as innovative - and, therefore, perhaps decide to travel on it."

Kollau cites the example of Emirates, which garnered plentiful publicity globally when it introduced showers for first class passengers aboard its A380s. Very few passengers can afford to travel first class, he points out - but they nevertheless view Emirates positively because of such developments.

Most passengers use ticket price as their main criterion when picking an airline. Low-cost carriers - such as Australia's Jetstar and Tiger Airways, Europe's Ryanair and Asia's Air Asia (with long-haul arm Air Asia X flying to Australia) - win abundant publicity through announcements of deep discounts, $1 fares and even "free" seats.

Airlines are remembered even by passengers who miss out on these deals or who are aware that "free" flights aren't actually free when taxes, charges and ancillary fees are factored in.

In this highly competitive climate, other traditional airlines - known in the aviation industry as "legacy carriers" - are compelled to try harder to win media coverage.

"It's about differentiation," says Amsterdam-based Kollau. "Fierce competition... is forcing airlines to think of ways to stand out.

This especially, but not exclusively, applies to relatively small airlines such as Air New Zealand, All Nippon Airways and Finnair. They don't have the vast networks of the likes of Lufthansa, Delta or Emirates and have to offer something extra."

While Air New Zealand is important in Australia, in world terms it's "a small airline in a small country at the end of the world". At least, that's how defines it. What's more, many of its flights are long-haul - such as services to London.

Air New Zealand landed immense international publicity last year when it unveiled its skycouch, to be available on some London services from April before being more widely rolled out. It's a stunningly simple concept, requiring 22 sets of Skycouch seats (the first 11 economy class rows next to windows).

Passengers pay a discounted price for three seats comprising a Skycouch. Armrests fold away and, at the touch of a button, footrests rise level with seats to create a couch - which comes with a pillow and other amenities. The airline says the Skycouch can be used to stretch out while reading or watching movies, for more sleeping space or as a children's play area.

Perhaps inevitably, wags nicknamed it "cuddle class" - and publicity resulting from such mischief hasn't hurt Air New Zealand either. According to Air New Zealand, more than 30 other airlines are interested in buying rights to the Skycouch concept after 18 months' exclusivity ends.

Aviation analysts suggest that vast publicity pegged to Air New Zealand's Skycoach announcement - boosted by inevitable Mile High Club connotations - will enhance an already-good long-haul reputation even among passengers occupying regular economy seats.

Another airline managing to gain attention through innovation is Finland's Finnair. Finnair ensures it is noticed through three strategies:

- Highlighting, particularly in Asia, that Helsinki flights are shorter than those to other European destinations, with good connections. (Asia already provides 50 per cent of Finnair's revenue.)

- Showcasing a classic Finnish amenity by installing saunas in airport lounges.

- Recycling aircraft seat coverings, curtains and even seatbelts as trendy tote bags, toiletry bags and other items to earn money and emphasise "green" corporate attitudes.

Other airlines winning attention for innovations include:

- Virgin America, with a seatback digital shopping platform, allowing shopaholics to while away time by browsing hundreds of products and shopping online. (The airline is also touting an "open tab" system, meaning travellers swipe credit cards only once to buy drinks, movies and items available through online shopping.) Kollau of says these are examples of an airline pushing boundaries to surprise passengers.

- KLM, now part of the Air France group, has developed a free iPhone app describing ceramic models of historic Dutch houses (filled with gin-related Dutch genever) that it gives to non-economy passengers - who no longer need to carry scribbled notes reminding them of which they already have.

- Lufthansa touts noise-absorbent carpets and curtains, an innovation poised to spread from first and business classes to economy when aircraft are refurbished.

While big airlines have large marketing budgets, small airlines don't, notes Kollau. So, the latter gain attention by "adding small, passenger-friendly touches to their offerings".