This is a new series of review articles featuring a variety of transportation services around the world. Airlines, limousine services, buses, trains and taxis are necessary to get to your port of embarkation for your cruise. They are all fair game as we report on the best ways to “get there”. Air New Zealand is the first airline to be featured in our new Get There series!
No matter how you fly to New Zealand from North America, it is going to be a long flight. From DFW, it is 3 hours to LAX, then another 12+ hours to Auckland. While a flight this long is tolerable in economy class, we have always found it well worth the extra money to upgrade to either Business Class, or Premium Economy. And, since we are flying to New Zealand to take a 5-star Silversea Cruises' voyage, it only makes sense to go in style.
During this project, we had the opportunity to experience Air New Zealand’s Premium Economy on two different types of aircraft. Our outbound flight from LAX to AUK was on a new 777-300ER. Our return flight from AUK to SFO was on one of the older 777-200 models. Air New Zealand offers Economy, Premium Economy and Business Premier on both types of aircraft; however, there are some distinct differences.
Los Angeles to Auckland - Boeing 777-300ER
The 777-300ER (ER stands for "extended range") aircraft features the new, and quite unique, “Spaceseat” in Premium Economy. When we boarded the plane in LAX and saw our assigned seats, we first thought we were in the Business Premium section of the plane, but were surprised to learn that these seats were, in fact, located in Premium Economy. The Premium Economy Spaceseats are “cocoon-style" shell seating units that resemble a miniature version of a Business Premium seat. The 2-2-2 seating is oddly configured because the seats are installed at an angle. The two seats on the fuselage sides of the cabin are angled toward the fuselage, while in the center section, one seat is angled to the left and the other angled to the right. The seats are also slightly offset from one another, so the window seat might be a few inches forward of the aisle seat next to it. In spite of this, it is still easy to converse with your traveling partner.
Premium Economy passengers benefit from priority boarding, just after Business Premier boards. Upon boarding, we were pleased to find a bottle of water in the seat along with a nice amenity kit (toothbrush, toothpaste, eye shade, lip balm, a pen, socks). A large, fluffy pillow and thick blanket are also provided. Noise-cancelling headphones are typically reserved for Business Class passengers on other airlines, but Air New Zealand provides them for Premium Economy guests. Nice. There is a beanbag "footrest" on the floor in front of each seat. The seat itself is noticeably larger than an economy-class seat and much more comfortable. In fact, the Spaceseat was as comfortable as the business class seats of many airlines on which we have flown. Because the seats are enclosed in their own plastic shell, you do not have the annoyance of the person’s seat in front of you reclining into your space. There’s nothing worse than spending 12 hours on a flight up-close and personal with someone’s head of hair in your face!
Hence the name “Spaceseat”: it really is your own personal “space”. Because of the way the seats are angled, watching the television screen and using the tray table takes a little getting used to as you do not sit directly in front of them. However, the tray table is very sturdy and completely flat, even though hinged in the middle. The tray swivels and slides and makes a perfect workstation for my MacBook laptop and for food and beverages. And, the television screen swings out on a sturdy arm and can be swiveled to adjust the viewing angle. While on the subject of television, the Spaceseat has one of the best entertainment systems we have ever seen on an aircraft, in ANY class of service, with a large 10.6-inch color touchscreen that actually works. The entertainment choices are vast with recently-released movies, books, popular television series, games, etc. There is a universal power outlet that supports most international power plugs and there are USB and iPod connections. Obviously, a lot of thought and engineering went into the design and construction of the Spaceseat.
Air New Zealand claims that the center Spaceseats are designed for couples, while the outer seats offer more privacy. Even though the center section seats are angled away from each other, there is a section between them that can be raised and used as shared table for having drinks together, playing cards, etc. Because the seats are angled, the shared table could easily be ignored if traveling alone and the the Spaceseat would still offer adequate privacy.
I have never been able to comfortably sleep on an airplane, even in Business or First Class. At 6’ 2” tall, I just cannot get comfortable enough no matter what I do. So, you can imagine my surprise when I dozed off in the Spaceseat and did not wake up until they turned the lights on for breakfast service the next morning! The legroom of the Spaceseat easily accommodated my 6’ 2” frame, even when “reclined”. I put “reclined” in quotes because the seats sort of slide forward under you rather than leaning back in a traditional recline. Nevertheless, the result is increased comfort, and I was able to sleep.
Our flight included a dinner service about an hour after take off. Passengers seated in Premium Economy seats have their own menu selections which look more like what you would expect in Business Premier. We had a choice of three main courses, chicken, beef or vegetarian. Rickee had the vegetarian option and I had the beef short ribs. Both were surprisingly good. I say surprisingly because, after a million or so miles of air travel, I have given up on airline food. When the flight attendant came by with a basket of fresh, warm bread, the meal was off to a good start. It was the first airline meal I have enjoyed in years. When the drink cart came around, I was pleased to see a good selection of very nice New Zealand wines along with sparkling wine, beer and mixed drinks, all complimentary in Premium Economy. Throughout the entire long flight, the flight attendants were friendly, well-groomed and seemed to be enjoying their job.
If you skip dinner and get hungry during the flight, a selection of “In-Flight Bites” is available in the galley for the taking. The Premium Economy cabin also had two dedicated lavatories, one being quite large. It was the nicest lav I have seen in an upper-economy class to date. The murals on the bathroom walls added to the "glamour"! Even better, the Air New Zealand flight attendants kept the lavs neat throughout the entire flight, which was something I certainly wasn't accustomed to seeing.
Could the Spaceseat be improved? I suppose nothing is perfect. The only thing I missed was a small hook to hang up my jacket.
Auckland to San Francisco - Boeing 777-200
On our return flight from New Zealand, we flew on one of the older 777-200 models with the 3-3-3 seating configuration in Premium Economy. The seating in this cabin was more like Economy Class with extra legroom, whereas the Spaceseat was more like a small Business Class seat. In spite of the older-style seating, we had an enormous amount of legroom, partly because we lucked out and were assigned the bulkhead seats (25B and 25C). The bulkhead here has tons of legroom, but you give up underseat storage for your smaller bags. And, you might not like it if a line forms for the lavatory which is located on the other side of the bulkhead. Another thing to consider is that the galley is just forward and to the left of these seats and the galley light is never completely turned off. Nevertheless, we would not hesitate to book these seats again.
As previously mentioned, these are more traditional old-school seats. They recline, and can therefore interfere with the personal space of the person sitting behind you (another benefit of a bulkhead seat: there is nobody reclining into your space). However, in Premium Economy, there is more space between the seats, so that potential interference is lessened to some degree. There is a small retractable footrest, but I did not find it very useful for me. The cushions on these seats were not as comfortable as the Spaceseat cushions, but still a step up from Economy Class. On the 777-200, it is more about extra legroom. Of course, you still benefit from Air New Zealand’s excellent Premium Economy service. Our flight attendant, Paula, called us by name whenever she served us, and she had a great sense of humor. In fact, all of the Air New Zealand crew members are extremely service-oriented and perhaps the nicest we have encountered on any airline.
Is it worth it?
I suppose this is the bottom-line question: Is Premium Economy worth the extra money? Regardless of whether it is the 777-300 Spaceseat, or the more traditional 777-200, Air New Zealand’s Premium Economy offers more value and service than any other premium economy service we have experienced to date. On most other carriers, premium economy (or the equivalent) is basically nothing more than a little extra legroom. On Air New Zealand, Premium Economy feels more like a separate “class” of service, much closer to Business Class than to Economy Class. So, between Rickee and me, we give Air New Zealand’s Premium Economy four thumbs up! In our opinion, no matter which long-haul Air New Zealand flight you are on, Premium Economy is well worth the money.
The Koru Lounge
Air New Zealand offers Business Premium flyers access to their Koru airport lounges in New Zealand (Auckland, Christchurch, Wellington) and five international destinations (Brisbane, Melbourne, Nadi, Rarotonga and Sydney). Air New Zealand is part of the Star Alliance group of airlines, and passengers who have attained Gold level or higher in the Star Alliance mileage program also have access to the Koru Lounge. A yearly membership can be purchased. We were fortunate to get a special media pass to visit the Koru Lounge in Christchurch and Auckland during our travels.
Upon entering the lounge in Christchurch, we were greeted by Wayne, who scanned our boarding passes and welcomed us to the lounge. He even took the time to look up our flight and get us better seats! We did not even have to ask, he just offered to do it. After receiving our new boarding passes, we entered the Koru Lounge, which was much larger that we expected it to be.
There is plenty of comfortable seating throughout the lounge and most seats have easy access to AC power for charging laptops and phones. There are two buffets, one serving salads, light snacks, cheese and crackers and desserts, while the other had hot soup and a couple of other hot entrees. A nice self-serve bar is available for mixed drinks and there is a nice selection of New Zealand wines, including sparkling wine. A refrigerator case has a selection of beers and soft drinks from which to choose. And of course, this is all complimentary. Something we have not seen in any lounge before visiting Koru Lounge is a Barrista who is on duty during certain hours during the day.
We also had the opportunity to meet and visit with Del, the Lounge Leader in Christchurch. It was obvious from visiting with Del that she loves her job. She and Wayne both demonstrated what we have now come to expect from everyone at Air New Zealand: a sincere interest in their customers. That is something sorely lacking with most airlines today.
In Auckland, we only had about 30 minutes to visit the Koru Lounge before boarding our flight to San Francisco. As you might expect, the lounge here is much larger than the one in Christchurch, and much busier. The services offered at both lounges are virtually identical with the choices of food being a bit more extensive in the Auckland lounge.
We have visited lounges for American, Delta, KLM, British Air, United and others. The Koru Lounge is certainly at the top of list and is a great benefit to anyone holding a Business Premium ticket, or a Koru Lounge membership.
For more information on Premium Economy or the Koru Lounge, visit AirNewZealand.com
Originally posted on: 2/3/2015