From sleep pods to refined menus, some economy-class passengers are getting an upgraded service, reports Alice Barnes-Brown
Board the plane, turn right, take your seat and brace yourself for discomfort: when flying economy, clients know exactly what to expect. Meal services and seat space have been slashed in recent years, but as the aviation industry recovers from the pandemic, passengers are beginning to demand more from their inflight experience.
This year’s flight capacity surpassed that of 2019 in October, according to aviation analytics firm Cirium. Plus, with new super-long-haul routes meaning passengers might be spending 15 hours or more in the air, some airlines are aiming to make flying economy a more appealing prospect. From better sleep at 35,000 feet to new menus, these innovations are intended to change flying for the better.
The Skynest by Air New Zealand (pictured)
Coming in September 2024, Air New Zealand’s revolutionary ‘Skynest’ offers passengers in Economy the chance to take a nap in a lie-flat bed. Two rows of three bunks, stacked atop one another, will be situated in the middle section of a select few Air New Zealand Dreamliners, flying the Auckland-New York and Auckland-Chicago routes.
Each passenger is eligible to buy a four-hour sleep slot from around US$250 in addition to their standard fare. The subtly mood-lit bed pods have privacy screens, bedding and USB ports.
The Skynest isn’t the first sleep-facilitating innovation from Air New Zealand. In 2011, it introduced the patented ‘Skycouch’, which allowed passengers to book a row of three seats to themselves.
Other airlines such as All Nippon have since used the Skycouch design and Lufthansa is looking to introduce it in its new Allegris cabins by 2025.
Wellbeing Zone by Qantas
Qantas’ new batch of Airbus A350s gave the airline the opportunity to rethink passenger comfort: besides installing fewer seats for more space, the galley area between Economy and Premium Economy has been totally reconfigured to include a ‘Wellbeing Zone’.
As well as a refrigerator where both Economy and Premium Economy passengers can help themselves to water bottles, juices and healthy snacks, the space by the emergency exit will have a dedicated space to stretch out, with plane-friendly stretches shown on a touchscreen TV and padded walls to lean on for support.
“We spent just as much time on the second half of the aircraft as we did the front; we started studies on the Wellbeing Zone before any other area of the A350,” says Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce.
With departures beginning at the end of 2025, innovative features like the Wellbeing Zone could certainly make 22 hours in the air much more comfortable.
Menu Upgrades by China Air, Eva Air and Cathay Pacific
The pandemic put airlines into survival mode, but some are starting to splash out on making the economy meal service more delicious. Meals by top chefs are back on the menu: from 2024, Economy Class passengers on Taiwanese carrier China Air will be able to munch on a menu curated by a three-Michelin-starred restaurant.
On Eva Air, another Taiwanese carrier, Economy Class passengers can opt to sample the delectable delights of Business Class for a small fee.
Plant-based options on board are rapidly improving too. This August, Cathay Pacific unveiled a plant-based menu by Hong Kong restaurant Veda, featuring Indian and Chinese favourites. Best of all, passengers on Cathay won’t have to pre-order a vegan or vegetarian meals as they'll be readily available.
In 2022, Emirates opened the world’s largest hydroponic farm, aiming to produce one million kilogrammes of leafy greens per year, with the fresh produce ending up in meals across all cabin categories.
Free Wi-Fi by JetBlue, Delta and Singapore Airlines
Customers are beginning to expect Wi-Fi onboard planes. A passenger survey by satellite provider Immarsat this year revealed that 77% said inflight Wi-Fi was important to them – up from 51% in 2018.
Previously the preserve of the premium classes, complimentary Wi-Fi is starting to be rolled out to all passengers on select airlines. North American airlines are leading the charge: JetBlue has offered free Wi-Fi to all passengers since 2017, and Delta announced plans to roll out free, unlimited Wi-Fi on all international flights by the end of 2024.
In Asia, Singapore Airlines introduced the service in July 2023.