Mile-high workouts and sleeping pods could come to new Qantas jet ‘cargo class’

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Would you spend a flight in the cargo hold with your luggage? Alan Joyce, chief executive officer of Australian airline Qantas Airways QAN, -2.15%  , has some ideas on how to use the space that’s better known as the chilly spot where pets sometimes perish and battery fires sometimes start.

Speaking in a meeting with the Australia-United Kingdom Chamber of Commerce in London on Tuesday, Joyce raised the idea of someday using the cargo hold for a new class of cabin, where some passengers could sleep in large pods and exercise.

The suggestion is part of Joyce’s plan for “Project Sunrise,” his goal to create a non-stop flight between Australia (from Sydney or Melbourne) to the UK and another direct flight to New York City within the next four years. Such a flight would take more than 20 hours, and could require a redesign of planes, said Brian Sumers, airline reporter for travel analysis site Skift.

“Because Boeing BA, +0.86%   and Airbus need to rethink what’s possible in order to give Qantas this long-range airplane, Joyce seems be asking his team to rethink what’s possible in terms of passenger experience,” he said.

Other airline executives have made outlandish promises about in-flight amenities in the past: Virgin Atlantic’s Richard Branson previously promised on-board casinos that never came to fruition. Lufthansa LHA, +3.88%   is reportedly working to develop in-flight yoga classes and other fitness experiences. Sumers said simply using cargo hold for sleeping may be more attainable.

“It wouldn’t be easy, and it might not be commercially viable, but it’s good to hear an airline executive talking about bringing train-style compartments to airplanes,” he said.

Meanwhile, airlines may do better to focus on improving the basic flight experience before adding more bells and whistles, said consumer advocate Christopher Elliott. Qantas puts economy-class passengers in seats that are 17.5 inches wide and have a pitch — the space between a point on one seat and the same point on the seat in front of it — of 31 inches. That’s relatively standard for a major airline, but uncomfortable for a long-haul flight of 20 hours.

“It’s more profitable but it’s also highly unethical,” Elliott said of the seat pitch. “Instead of thinking about exercise rooms and luxury berths for its elite passengers, maybe Qantas should find ways of giving all of its customers a humane amount of legroom.” Qantas did not respond to request for comment.