Air New Zealand is jetting big time into the competition for passenger comfort – and increased revenue – on international long-haul flights to LAX.

Its entry: something called the “sky couch,” a three-seat configuration in economy class that allows two adults to lie flat. While such features are common in the business and first-class cabins of several airlines, they are unheard of in coach.

“It’s definitely a revolutionary idea,” said Jack Penning, a consultant with Sixel Consulting Group, an aviation consulting company in Eugene, Ore.

The service is aimed at customers who travel in pairs since travelers essentially have to buy additional seats to make the configuration work. The service also is being marketed to group travelers.

Air New Zealand expects that the seats will add a premium ranging from $1,800 to as little as $300 to the price of a round-trip economy ticket between Los Angeles and Auckland. Those tickets generally run between $1,200 and $1,500 depending on when they are bought.

The couches will make up 22 of the 244 spaces in the economy section of two new Boeing 777 jets the airline expects to put into service in April. The new aircraft will eventually carry passengers on daily flights between Los Angeles and two destinations: London and Auckland.

The upgraded 777 would appear to make the airline more competitive with Qantas Airway, the Australian airline that serves LAX with the Airbus A380, a cutting-edge double-deck jumbo jet that has set a new standard for luxury.

The Airbus features individualized suites, large dining tables, dresser units and convertible, fully flat beds with foam mattresses in its first-class cabins. There are adjustable headrests, cushioned armrests and netted leg supports in economy class but no beds.

Qantas uses the A380 on daily flights to Sydney and three flights a week to Melbourne. The airplane is not yet available on the airline’s Auckland flight from LAX.

Within four years, Air New Zealand’s entire fleet of 747s is expected to be replaced by 777s.

“This will change the way people fly,” said Kathryn Gregory, New Zealand’s director of marketing at its North American headquarters in El Segundo.

The airline hopes eventually to sell its proprietary sky couch design to other airlines. However, Penning said the concept would likely only work on less traveled international flights, such as those with destinations like Aukland.

“Those seats would be empty anyway so they can derive extra income from filling them up,” he said. “I’m not completely sold on the idea, especially on high-capacity routes; it’ll be interesting to see what happens.”

Handling More Stuff

Marine terminals at the Port of Long Beach are gearing up to handle potentially large cargos during the region’s peak shipping season later this summer by hiring back hundreds of part-time workers let go last year when trade fell.

Container volume at the port unexpectedly surged – recording a 26 percent increase to 520,100 units – from June to July.

The nearby Port of Los Angeles reported its busiest June ever, handling more than 730,000 container units, a 32 percent increase from last year.

“We have plenty of capacity, but the recent jump in cargo volumes has occasionally resulted in delays for truckers,” said J. Christopher Lytle, the Long Beach port’s deputy executive director. “We’ve been looking at solutions and I’m pleased to see the terminals taking steps.”

Most of the added “casual” workers are driving trucks to move cargo around or tracking boxes to manage cargo flow. To accommodate the extra personnel, many terminals are opening an hour earlier than usual, closing an hour later and operating through the noon hour. The port has also formed a working group to recommend other ways of improving efficiency.

Port Confab

PortTech LA, a business incubator formed in 2009 by the Port of Los Angeles, and the San Pedro Peninsula and Wilmington chambers of commerce, is moving forward.

The non-profit, which has a focus on clean energy, transportation logistics, homeland security and other growing industries, is sponsoring a Technology Expo and Investment Conference at San Pedro’s DoubleTree Hotel.

The Sept. 15 event will bring together entrepreneurs, potential investors and maritime industry representatives. It will feature demonstrations, seminars and roundtable discussions, said PortTech Executive Director Jeff Milanette.

Staff reporter David Haldane can be reached at dhaldane@labusinessjournal.com or at 323-549-5225, ext. 225.

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