Monday, May 21, 2012

That's One Sexy Airplane

My travel day did not start in the most auspicious manner. I arrived at SFO for the short hop down to LAX to connect with my Air New Zealand flight to London, and found the United domestic terminal to be as crowded and chaotic as Thanksgiving weekend. Rather than fight to get a check-in agent who would actually talk to me and solve problems (the woman in front of me was already dealing with a very real issue), I decided to take the easy way out and self-check me and my bag to Los Angeles. If it had been less crazy, I'd have pulled out my Air New Zealand reservation and asked the agent to check my bag through to London and to issue my LAX-LHR boarding pass. I figured I had over three and a half hours to make the connection in LAX, the weather was perfect, my plane was already at SFO, what could go wrong?

What went wrong was that some other United 757 had a mechanical problem, forcing United Operations to scramble to see which planes and flights they could swap to get the most people to their destinations as close to on time as possible. Since ours was just a short hop, we got swapped twice. This resulted in us arriving at LAX 1:10 late. Fortunately I have a personal policy for international connections at LAX: figure out what flight you want to be on, and book the one before it. This is what made it possible for me to make my connection, despite being late, having to wait to claim a bag, and making a 15 minute walk to the Air New Zealand terminal because two shuttles in a row went "out of service."

I checked in at Air New Zealand with 15 minutes to spare (they have a 90 minute cut-off), and headed to their Koru Lounge to freshen up. The lounge was comfortable, stocked with New Zealand wines, New Zealand vodka, and a decent snack buffet with salad and sandwich fixings. I opted for a bowl of comforting chicken noodle soup and a lovely glass of white New Zealand sparkling wine.

About 40 minutes later they called us to board, and as I approached the jetway I was thrilled to see I would be flying on one of the 777's in the special "All Black" livery. That's one sexy airplane, painted to honor the New Zealand national sporting teams.

If that wasn't already exciting enough for my passenger airplane nerd self, I nearly gasped when I boarded. US-based airlines: this is the future of long-haul travel. Get with the damn program already. Even your recent updates seem a decade behind. I chose to fly Air New Zealand's new Pacific Premium Economy class because it was only about $100 more expensive than flying a nasty United/Continental 757 in coach via Newark. Even adding on the $70 to fly from SFO to LAX, even adding on the hassle of the SFO delays and then race-walking from Terminal 6 baggage claim to Air New Zealand check-in at the farthest reaches of Terminal 2 while dragging over 50 lbs. of scuba gear, it was worth every bit of effort and expense. I go to the United Kingdom every year, and I *will* go via Air New Zealand again unless United miraculously steps it up. Or unless I like Turkish Airways Premium Economy even more (I'll talk about that in a couple of weeks).

The Pacific Premium Economy section is nearly indistinguishable at first glance from the Business Class cabin. As far as I can tell, the Biz people have lay-flat seats with seat-high ottomans, and the Premium cabin has pod seats that recline a not-quite reasonable amount and have cute bean bag hassocks. I'm short, so I piled my bean bag on top of my pillow on top of my tote bag to get it high enough. Each seat is a cocooned pod, with tons of shoulder room. Each seat is also stocked with a bottle of water, a real pillow, and a decent blanket. I somehow managed to snag a bulkhead seat, and found that the bulkhead curves, making it much easier to get from the window seat to the aisle.

It gets better: there was a nice amenities kit, with lip balm, moisturizer, ear plugs, toothbrush, toothpaste, eye shade, and purple socks. There's a regular power socket at each seat. Nice New Zealand Wines are included in the ticket price (you have to pay on United transatlantic flights). The bathrooms are roomy (and stylish!) and have cloth fingertip towels.

The food isn't just edible, it's tasty. The last time I flew trans-oceanic Economy on United I got a foil dish of pasta that tasted worse than Chef Boy-ar-dee. Tonight's meal consisted of non-iceberg salad with a slab of smoked salmon, warm garlic bread, cheese and crackers, and a choice of main dishes -- all served on real plates with real silverware. I had the lamb, which was paired with roasted potatoes and green peas. The lamb was a trifle chewy but in all honesty I cannot complain. The peas tasted faintly of mint and were delicious. I washed it down with two glasses of a New Zealand Pinot Noir, served from a real bottle, served in a glass glass, and finished with a slice of raspberry swirl cheesecake. At dessert time, the attendants offered a choice of a white dessert wine or port. I chose the port and found it to be pleasant.

Oh, and about those peas. I ate every single one of them, and I hate peas. (If you don't believe me I'll give you my Mother's email address and you can ask her.)

Then there's the gate-to-gate entertainment system: it lets you browse the offerings and save what you like to a personal playlist. You can start and stop anything at will. And if that isn't good enough, you can borrow a special cable to connect your iDevice to your video screen.

So, at this point, I am very much in favor of Air New Zealand's Pacific Premium Economy. Finally, a service for people who a willing to pay somewhat more than cattle class but who don't have the $$$ to shell out for an actual business class ticket. If you're going to spend 10 1/2 hours on a plane, you might as well be comfortable.

The only downside to all this is that I only slept about an hour and a half on the flight. The seat just didn't recline enough for me, and the adjustable head rest only goes up and down. It doesn't have the folding side flaps that cradle your head like on some United planes. All in all I'd say Pacific Premium Economy beats the US carriers' regular and "extra legroom" coach offerings by a landslide. Just don't expect it to be as comfortable as the old-style "easy chair" business class seats, much less the new lay flat ones. However, the price is a lot more like regular coach than it is like business class, and the cabin service is simply delightful.

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