Thursday, January 28, 2010

Flying by the seat of your pants.

Air New Zealand has just launched new seating concepts, to be introduced on long-haul flights in November of this year.

The significance of the press event seemed to me to be less about the actual design of the seats—handsome and innovative as they are (and I think they will certainly impress the travelling public)—and more of a reinforcement of the significance of Air New Zealand itself to the New Zealand economy and our national identity.

Seats symbolise the airline business more so than wings or smiling cabin crew. Seats are the carrier’s inventory. An empty chair on an aircraft can’t be stored, repriced and sold at a later date. The complex inter-relationships of, not only seats sold, but also at what price margin is as significant as the variable cost of fuel and the cost of the funds (paid in US dollars). There are other factors, but these will determine how much profit or loss the business makes.

There are also functional requirements for convenient timetables, attractive destinations and favourable rates/landing arrangements at airports around the world. Who’d want to be in the airline business? Many operators have made a small fortune (usually out of a large one—even Air New Zealand has experienced its share of turbulence in the past).

Airlines are also notoriously difficult to differentiate from competitors. All of the above factors are common to all; no one escapes the operational complexity. Combine that with simple fact that most airlines on long haul routes buy or lease the same aircraft types and have limited ability to reconfigure the cabins. Aside from colour schemes and cabin crew uniforms most passenger jet experiences are interchangeable.

As Air New Zealand’s CEO, Rob Fyfe points out, the inflight experience drives the airline’s investment in the new cabin configurations, seating, entertainment and service. It is this experience that defines the passenger’s impression of the brand. In-bound holidaymakers represent a much higher percentage of travellers with Air New Zealand than business travellers and because the distances covered are far greater than most other national carriers, the opportunity is to turn a potential negative into a category leading positive. As the national carrier there is the added responsibility to predispose travellers to New Zealand long before they even set foot on our soil and reinforce their experience on the journey home.

The process of redesigning the long haul cabin experience has been a long haul in itself. General manager of the international division, Ed Sims, says the process began four years ago. Internationally-renowned design consultancy IDEO was commissioned to guide the company through the early stages of development. IDEO rapid prototyping and anthropological approach to useability and function are something of a legend in the design community. Some might find it curious that an international firm be commissioned to lead the process, but the stakes are sky high. The result seems worthwhile so far. By including four leading local structural design firms to assist in the design implementation the cross pollination of ideas and expertise adds value to the design community.

Air New Zealand says there is an opportunity to license the designs to other airlines. Hopefully that policy will be judiciously deployed. It would make little sense to diminish hard-won competitive advantage by offering it to rivals on the same routes you travel.

The initiative is a significant one for the airline. It could pay-off in spades. It doesn’t take much to get me to hop on a plane; I’d probably travel in a cabin with passengers who have brought livestock aboard (I have, long story). But the prospect of experiencing a much more comfortable journey, with great, simple food and happy, proud cabin crew takes the promise of a long-haul flight to a whole new level.