In-flight Creature comforts
NEW ZEALAND MAY be seen as an idyllic clean and green paradise to the rest of the world, but the fact remains, us Kiwis are a hell of a long way from anywhere. Anything beyond a quick hop to the Pacific Islands or dash across the Tasman to Australia typically involves upwards of 12 hours flying which for most, is at best an excruciating experience.
This said, Air New Zealand has gone to a huge amount of effort to upgrade their long haul fleet over the last few years and have won multiple accolades (including Airline Of The Year in 2010 and 2012). So how does travelling long haul on Air New Zealand’s upgraded planes really stack up? I was heading from New Zealand to the USA flying premium economy, followed by economy on the trip back to NZ, so I thought I’d check both out.
NZ to LA: Premium economy
Air NZ generated quite a stir with their newly redesigned premium economy and business class cabins and seats which were first rolled out on their 777-300ER aircraft. The redesign has seen Air New Zealand combining cutting edge tech with innovative design, which together really do help to make flying long-haul (dare I say it) an almost pleasant experience.
Much of the gee-whiz cabin and seating design was originally developed at Air New Zealand’s top secret Hangar 9 skunkworks in central Auckland. After exhaustive market research and prototyping, the new premium economy and business class cabins have received glowing reviews by travelers. Stepping aboard NZ6 enroute to LA from Auckland revealed high tech purplish mood lighting (which can also cleverly emulate dusk and dawn to help minimise jet lag) and a sci-fi like white on white finish which looked pretty slick. The premium economy cabins are complete with high-tech looking seat-pods that provide the ability to curl up with a significant other should you require it (sadly, I was travelling on my own so this wasn’t an option).
Onboard the 777-300, premium economy is laid out in three sets of seat pairs. The premium economy seats are angled away from each other, which cleverly gives the occupant a feeling of both spaciousness and privacy. Premium economy seat pods share a common centre console that can handily do double duty as a snack table or provide extra space to curl up one’s legs.
A table folds down from the back of each seat, and the in-flight entertainment (IFE) system LCD touch screen angles out on a small arm. The table is also cleverly hinged in the middle, so it can be used either fully open or half-closed (which is handy for drinks while helping to reduce seating space clutter).
Both premium and business class seats also have a universal AC mains power socket which is designed to take most international plug configurations and provide 110v AC. There’s also a USB charging socket which will keep portable devices like phones and MP3 players juiced up, as well as a video-in socket so you can watch movies from a notebook PC, iPhone or iPad on the in-flight entertainment screen. The real brilliance of the mains socket is that unlike other airlines, you needn’t purchase a fiddly (and costly) in-flight power adaptor as most standard mains plugs will usually work just fine, allowing gadgetry to run for the duration of the entire flight.
As clever as the premium economy seat design is, there are a few quirks. For a start there’s the small cushioned compartment next to the seat for wallets and other gear that you’re bound to forget when exiting the aircraft (I almost walked off the plane without my iPod after landing until one of Air NZ’s crew thoughtfully reminded me to check for valuables). Another is the beanbag located in the foot-well in each premium economy seat that was presumably intended for use as a footrest. I’m not particularly tall, but I found it just annoyingly got in the way.
Getting comfy has its challenges and although the seats do recline, you’re still largely vertical. Although the seat can slide forwards or backwards (which cleverly means you’re not imposing on the personal space of fellow passengers in the row behind you), it wasn’t conducive for a trip to the land of nod while at altitude and I struggled to get any shut-eye during the entire flight to LA (which isn’t surprising as I was already well rested and pretty hyped about getting to Las Vegas).
Food and beverages
While Air NZ went to some length to talk up the induction ovens that were to be used in the aircraft cabin re-design, these had since been removed. I suspect this is most likely because the ovens were probably drawing too much current, potentially placing a strain on the aircraft’s electrical systems. That said the food, wine and other beverages supplied in premium economy were excellent. Instead of the usual soggy microwaved mystery meat served by most airlines, the food I consumed was really tasty.
Air New Zealand also make a fairly big deal around the New Zealand wine they carry on board – in business and premium economy they supply a booklet with background on the vineyards where each wine is sourced from (after extensive testing I am also happy to confirm that the wine selection in premium economy is excellent). Sadly, the available beers were limited to bland big labels (come on Air New Zealand – how’s about adding some quality Kiwi craft beers – some in-flight Tuatara definitely wouldn’t go astray).
In Flight Entertainment
Thankfully, the days of crackly inflight entertainment are over. The near mandatory postage stamp sized video screen located on bulkheads several kilometres down the other end of the plane have been superseded by small personal LCD touch screens in premium economy that deliver entertainment (be it video, music or games) on an on-demand basis from a server aboard the plane. Not only does this mean you are able to pause rewind and fast-forward TV shows and/or movies you were watching, but you’re also able to start and stop viewing content when you wish (this brilliantly also means that there isn’t a mass stampede to the loos when the movie finishes).
Premium Economy: The Verdict
Exiting the plane at LAX I was pleasantly surprised at how fresh I felt (which was definitely a good thing given I had to wait upwards of four hours for a connecting domestic flight out of LAX). If you can afford it, and need to arrive at your destination in an unstressed, fed and generally happy state of mind, Air New Zealand’s premium economy is definitely worth checking out.
LA to NZ: Economy
Unfortunately, Air New Zealand’s efforts to add pizzaz was let down by their economy class, which seems to have been largely overlooked, with most design and technology upgrades limited to the in-flight entertainment system and a few other barely noticeable tweaks.
The economy cabin lacks the fancy LED multi-coloured mood lighting of premium and business class, and seats seem largely unchanged from the bog-standard economy configuration used by most other airlines (on the 777, 300 economy seats are still in a standard 3-4-3 configuration) which requires economy passengers do a sardine impersonation.
As I was travelling on my own, I didn’t opt for a cuddle class seat, but given how hot and stuffy it was throughout the economy cabin, I’d imagine cuddle class seating (where economy class seating is converted into a lie flat bed for two) would quickly become sweat class seating.
While the in-flight entertainment system is almost completely identical to that available in premium economy and business (except that the screens are slightly smaller and not touch-controlled), food and beverages are pretty basic, although the wine selection was still reasonably good.
Economy: The Verdict
Amazingly, I actually managed to get several hours of shut-eye in economy, which was something that had eluded me in premium economy (I attribute this to post-Las Vegas/CES exhaustion). That said, parts of my brain were still holding their own passing out ceremony after I’d exited the aircraft and I definitely didn’t feel well-rested or unstressed for a good 48 hours or so. The economy experience was nowhere near as pleasant as premium or business class, but it was, of course, significantly more affordable than travelling up the front of the plane.
Air New Zealand’s premium economy and business class seating and cabin design may have raised the bar for long haul air travel. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for their economy class which is pretty bog-standard and lets down what is otherwise an incredible feat of inflight design and technology.
This said, the Air New Zealand cabin crew were nothing short of incredible, regardless which part of the plane they were located in. Compared to other airlines I’ve flown, their can-do attitude and genuine smiles made a real difference, even while flying cattle class.
The business and premium redesign will no doubt keep many high-end travelers from switching to competing and more aggressively priced airlines, but there is little to nothing keeping most economy class travelers loyal to air New Zealand. Given the sheer amount of competition from other airines, here’s hoping that Air New Zealand tweak their economy class to match the awesomeness that can be found in both premium economy and business class. PAT PILCHER