Air New Zealand redefines on-board experience with new interior

On December 24, a new B777-300 landed at Auckland airport, the arrival being the culmination of a project begun in 2004 by Air New Zealand. Initially prompted by the pending arrival of the B787-900, for which the carrier was the launch customer, the airline embarked on an internal programme to redefine the on-board experience in ways that had never before been tried.

Predictable change for 20 years

NZ looked at the world of cabin design and isolated three developments that have characterised all of the changes made by legacy carriers in the past 20 years. These are: 

  • Seat-back IFE;
  • Lie-flat seats in premium cabins;
  • Premium economy.

While noteworthy developments, they have now been universally implemented and have, but for small tweaks, become a common offer on every network carrier.

Air New Zealand has a particular interest in on-board design because, due to geography, Air New Zealand passengers have, on average, flights that are 90 minutes longer than those of other carriers. As a result, most passengers experience the product longer than is the case with other airlines.

On arrival at Boeing, the carrier was presented with the interiors that were available on Boeing aircraft and, for various reasons, found them all wanting. Spurred to action by the realisation that “none of the above” was not an acceptable option, the airline created a special team and charged it with creating “the best aircraft cabin ever seen”, a task with some daunting challenges.

The goal was to develop and install the new interiors on all B773s and B789s as they were delivered and to revamp service onboard. Working with IDEO a design consultancy located in Palo Alto, California, the airline began to re-examine all aspects of the flight experience.

Questioning the status quo

Basic questions were asked, such as: "Why do all the crew members do the same tasks? Or, what other consumer venue do you enter through the kitchen? Inspiration was derived not from existing airline practices but rather by examining the design and operation of other spaces such as spas and yacht design.

After a series of “no idea is too weird” meetings, it became obvious that many concepts were truly best described as “nuts”. Nevertheless, the research showed that passengers are classifiable by behaviour and that, in order to be unique, the designs had to accommodate these varying attitudes.

They found that – and it should be no surprise to any frequent flyer – travellers fit into two broad categories: social and anti-social, with each able to be further subdivided.

The social folks were either positivists, very involved and excited, or socialites who were open to discussion and engagement with fellow passengers and crew. The more pejoratively named anti-socials were identified as being territorialists, cocooners or simply were disengaged from the broader community.

The key to catering to the second group was to minimalise, as far as possible, shoulder, armrest and eye contact as these are clearly encounters unappreciated by those wishing to be disengaged. 

The airline’s ultimate goal was to move from the sale of seats to the sale of an onboard experience that was tailored to the traveller’s mood. Since 80% of any aircraft’s passengers fly in economy, there was also a desire to clearly differentiate that cabin in ways that simplified and enhanced the flight.

After considerable debate, the choices for a new interior were reduced to five and a mock-up of each design was created and tested by groups of actors given specific roles and ways of testing the design against established parameters. There were cluster arrangements, bunk beds and other non-traditional cabin layouts in the final five.

Hard choices

Eventually, each of the aircraft cabins took on its final configuration. The design team actually found it more difficult to eliminate some of the proposals than it was to develop them as each had developed a constituency.

In Business Premier, the existing seats were essentially retained but they were reduced in weight and the “mattress” was made softer. But there were more substantial changes made in the service realm as induction ovens replaced the airline-standard convection units, allowing food to be cooked freshly on board rather than just reheated.

And, in a regulatory triumph, the new galleys sport real toasters, making NZ the only carrier in the world to actually provide fresh toast en-route. Eggs will also be cooked onboard to order according to a seven-step process to be learned by the crew.


This new set of tasks will require a galley manager – essentially an on-board cook – whose duties will differ from those of other crewmembers. Additionally, these food requests can be made from the passenger’s IFE screen, which, as in restaurants, posts the pending order in the galley for preparation.

A similar on-demand via IFE system operates in all classes but with fewer options available in economy. This means that rather than trolling a cart through the aisles on a regular basis, passengers in every compartment will be served on-demand.

Trolley service at normal mealtimes will continue, but the you-snooze, you-lose norm will disappear.

The biggest makeover will be found on Premium Economy where the seating differs for the social/antisocial groups. The centre seats angle slightly away yet provide a paired experience where two people travelling together can share a meal served on the generous centre armrests or collapse the armrest completely to create a sofa style space.  The side pairs are more traditionally arranged, yet carefully angled to provide privacy and avoid eye and arm contact. 

In economy, a number of sets of three can be converted to Skycouches which allow families or other joint travellers to create a wider surface for reclining, though clearly too short to be a full bed. These seats immediately became known as “cuddle class”, a term that has now appeared on the New York Times’ list of memorable terms introduced in 2010. 

Since these seats have a strong appeal for couples, special revenue management software has been created to price the three-for-two offer according to demand.

Initial disbelief followed by interest

Following an initial period of disbelief, Boeing and other carriers have taken a strong interest in the designs and, following a period of exclusivity, the designs will be made available to other carriers with a royalty paid to Air New Zealand. Current levels of interest indicate that the development costs may all eventually be recouped through such sales. Air New Zealand has also made it clear that not all airlines will be eligible to use the seats, presumably those whose markets overlap with NZ routes. 

And that entering through the kitchen thing? It will continue but the space through which passengers pass will have lost its industrial look—replaced by tailored surfaces, artwork and subdued lighting.

Toilets will have bookcase or chandelier murals on previously blank walls making that visit a bit more whimsical as well.

The new interiors will first appear on flights to Los Angeles and London with other routes reconfigured as they become available.

Real change or just another fad

The question as to whether or not this will be the “world’s best configuration” is yet to be determined. Regardless of the answer, Air New Zealand has certainly grown the body of knowledge regarding the passenger experience and has invested mightily in achieving a better experience. If indeed the new configurations begin to appear across the industry; well, it all started in a former cheese shop in Auckland.

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