The following report is from a trans-Tasman trip I did this past winter. It's only a couple of flights but considering the excellent service I received in Air New Zealand's Economy Class CHC-AKL coupled with an upgrade to United's Business Class on the Trans-Tasman portion, I figured some of you might be interested in a report...
CHC-AKL Air New Zealand 520 Coach Class
767-219 ZK-NBA Seat 31F
240p-400p Flight time: 1:06
I arrived at Christchurch Int’l. Airport’s domestic terminal at 1:30p and was pleased to find the lines for Air New Zealand’s Economy Class check-in quite manageable. As I was flying stand-by with no set reservations I had to first get in one line to purchase my stand-by ticket, then get in another line to check in for stand-by. There, I was told I’d be standing by for the 2:40p flight and was instructed to return to the counter area at 2:20pm. Although I’d hoped to be able to select which flight I would stand-by for, in particular a one-stop 737-300 service through Wellington, I was informed that most all the flights were sold out today, especially services to Wellington where the renowned New Zealand Festival was just getting under way. I did take some consolation in the fact that the aircraft operating the 240p flight was 767-219 ZK-NBA, Air New Zealand’s very first of the type.
I came back to the stand-by counter at 2:20p and watched as the crowd grew larger and larger. Hopefully not everyone was standing by for the Auckland flight! I chatted with a couple in front of me who told me that only two people had cleared for the earlier flight up to Auckland. They’d been in the airport since 11:00am. Oh, great! Traveling on a 50% off YHA Stand-by ticket, I surely must’ve been fairly low in the stand-by pecking order. 2:30p came and went. This close to flight time I imagined that if they hadn’t called names by now they probably weren’t going to. Well, imagine my surprise when just a couple of minutes later an agent appeared with a string of boarding passes and started calling out names for Flight 520. As his stack got smaller and smaller, I began to plan what I’d do with myself for the next hour or so when suddenly my name was called. Who, me?! Yes! The very last name called! Now I know how people feel when their names get called on The Price Is Right. I let out a loud scream, tore at my hair and began my victory dance towards the counter when suddenly the back of my thigh tightened and I was forced to sit. (Just kidding!) Actually, I kept my composure and strode up to the counter with relative poise and dignity, collected my boarding pass and headed straightaway to the gate.
Seat 31F was in the middle seats on the aisle. I recognized everyone in my row from the stand-by line. Hmmm? A stand-by section? Across the aisle from me four young girls flying to Auckland to compete in a gymnastics event giggled, squealed and teased one another to no end. They appeared to be traveling without adult supervision. Pity. They really were quite noisy! We pushed back and, after a short take-off roll, were soon climbing through scattered clouds and sunshine en route to Auckland.
Flight time was scheduled for 1:10 at 33,000 feet. In America, on a flight of this length, leaving at this hour, you’d get one pass with the beverage cart and if you were lucky, a bag of peanuts. Ah, but this wasn’t America. They still do things the old fashioned way on Air New Zealand. As soon as we’d leveled out, a snack tray was served bearing a small corned beef and egg sandwich, an apricot muesli bar and a coffee cup. Flight attendants roamed the aisles with pots of coffee and tea and despite being sat in the third or fourth to the last row in the plane I was able to have a couple cups of coffee and turn down offers for a couple of more. US airlines could take a few lessons from Air New Zealand in everything from service efficiency to attitude. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve got some great folks working in America. Overall though, the Air New Zealand crews have impressed me as consistently better.
After a nice landing in Auckland, I claimed my baggage and, rather than head into town to stay at one of Auckland’s many hostels, I splurged and got me a room at the nearby Garden Inn. For $60.00NZD ($25.00USD) I got a clean and comfortable room with refrigerator, coffee maker and TV with attached pub and restaurant. Such a deal!
Here’s how I rate this flight:
Check in: A-
Like a trip into yesteryear. What a one hour flight ought to be.
AKL-MEL United 841 Business Class
747-422 N196UA Seat 16A
950a-1140a Flight time: 3:20
I wasn’t sure if my Premier status would allow me to use the Business Class check-in queue here in Auckland but I decided have a go at it anyway. What a pleasant surprise to discover upon checking in that United had given me an operational upgrade into Business Class. Perhaps it does pay to dress nicely. In my case, the nicest I could get was my black jeans and a blue button down oxford shirt. I asked for and got an upstairs window, 16A.
On to the lounge. United and Air New Zealand share a large lounge one floor above the departure level. I’m not sure if this lounge served Business and First or Business only. It certainly was bright, with plenty of windows overlooking the concourse below, and spacious with plenty of couches and tables spread about. In the back were a printer and two computers, one of them connected to the Internet. I tried to print a Word97 document without success. There were four or five closed booths offering work areas.
The food offerings were nothing special but appropriate to the time of day. On a big central table were a variety of breakfast breads and cookies, a basket of pre-packaged cereals, a selection of yogurts and a bowl of sliced honeydew melon. Two big glassed-door wall fridges offered an impressive array of beers and soft drinks.
The call to board came just 25 minutes before departure so I gathered my gear and headed down to Gate 10, the very last gate on the concourse. Although we’d already cleared security upon entering the concourse, because this flight was operated by a US carrier we had to go through another security checkpoint at the gate complete with X-rays and metal detectors. In addition, everyone had to remove their shoes and send them through the X-ray machine as well. The man behind me grumbled to one of the security guys that it would’ve been a lot easier if “that idiot Reid” had tried to place the bomb in his hat to which the security guy replied that at least he hadn’t tried to stash it in a body cavity. Hmm… good point...
Despite having flown over 1000 flights and 1.2 million miles with United, this was to be my first flight aboard one of their 747-400s. We entered through door 1L and I got a good look at the First Class cabin. Those First Suites sure looked inviting though the predominantly grey and dark grey interior contributed to a somewhat gloomy ambience.
Grey or not, I think United’s Business Class is its best product. Upstairs were just 26 seats offering more legroom than I’d ever seen in any Business Class. BA’s new flat Business Class seats may be nicer but United’s cabin looks far more spacious and if I can’t have one of those new flat seats, I think UA’s Business Class seats are the next best thing going. I’ve seen trip reports suggesting that the best seats up top on UA’s 400s were 15G & H. Yeah, the seat pitch for that row is indeed a good 120 inches or more but honestly, unless you were incredibly tall, there’s more than enough space in front of you for your legs and all your belongings. And of course one of the nicer parts of sitting upstairs on the 747 are the seatside storage lockers.
My seatmate arrived, a re-board on his way back home to Australia. He hadn’t slept all that well on the flight down from Los Angeles and wasted little time in making up for what sleep he’d lost. He was out before we’d pushed back from the jetway.
Preflight water, juice or champagne was offered but no newspapers. I had an orange juice and checked out this month’s Hemispheres offerings. As airline mags go, I think Hemisphere’s a pretty good one. I particularly like their Three Perfect Days series filled with all kinds of interesting things to see or do over three days in the various cities United serves. This month’s city was, understandably, Salt Lake City. I didn’t know that the historic old Union Pacific depot at the foot of SLC’s main drag, South Temple Street, had been renovated and now is part of a new upscale shopping center, soon to add a planetarium. Last time I passed through that station it was pretty run down.
Menus were distributed. Given our late morning departure, the meal offered was brunch. Here’s the menu transcript:
Auckland to Melbourne
Your selected entree will be served with fresh fruit, breakfast breads, butter and fruit preserves.
Puffed pastry filled with scrambled eggs and onions
Served with grilled ham and asparagus
Chicken Parmesan with marinara sauce
Accompanied by Fettuccine Alfredo
Lighter Lunch Offering
Ham and Swiss cheese sandwich
Presented with grilled asparagus and zucchini, plum tomatoes, Dijon mustard and a rosemary and olive roll
As we pushed back from the gate and then taxied out for take off, the flight attendants did a manual safety demonstration which included telling those of us on the upper deck to exit downstairs in the event of a water landing. Never heard that one before… But then, this was my first flight upstairs on anything other than a 747-200.
Shortly after take-off, our Captain came on over the PA and not only welcomed us all aboard but also began one of the more detailed in-flight briefings I’ve ever heard. He introduced himself and his First Officer by name, told us where each of them was from (Lake Forest, Ill. and Camarillo, Ca. respectively) and then gave us the usual flight information. Cruisin’ at 36,000 feet with a flight time of 3:21.
Not wanting to be left out, the flight attendants also got into the act and, while not introducing everyone by name, did run down where everyone was from. Quite the geographical diversity here with everywhere from Aspen, Colorado to Kenosha, Wisconsin to Madrid, Spain represented. I can’t imagine this approach happens anywhere, if at all other than aboard a US carrier and it was certainly representative of the more laid back style that, for better or worse, is a hallmark of American style in-flight service. I liked it.
Meal orders were taken and as an upgrade traveling on an economy saver award I expected I’d be amongst the last to choose. As it was I ended up somewhere in the middle and was surprised to find all three selections still available. I opted for the eggs and an immediate cup of coffee. Meanwhile I fired up the video screen and turned it to my old favorite, the Sky Map. United’s Business Class screens are pretty small but what they lack in size they make up for in clarity. I alternated between the Sky Map and a replay of the classic 1994 Auburn-Florida football game.
Just as the first quarter was coming to an end, about 300 miles out from Auckland, linens were laid and breakfast was served. Unlike domestic services, this meal was presented in separate courses. First, we received a tray with a fruit bowl, a bread plate, salt and pepper shakers, a coffee cup and our silverware (except for knives) wrapped in a napkin. The fruit portion was adequate and tasty, consisting of the usual mix of citrus and melons. Croissants and rolls were offered and the coffee flowed freely. Our entrees followed soon after. My egg dish was exactly as described and was delicious. The eggs tasted as if they’d been prepared with cream cheese and the asparagus was a great accompaniment.
My only complaint with this meal wasn’t with the food itself but rather with the coffee. United’s cups are so small that by even adding a small amount of cream you’ll cool your coffee down to near bathwater temperature. Just as a wine is not drunk from a shot glass, a proper cup of coffee is best enjoyed in something larger than a near demitasse. I think that for First and Business Classes at least United should invest in some larger coffee cups.
I spent the rest of the flight reading and working on this report. My seatmate slept through it all, rousing only once to use the toilets early in the flight. I didn’t mind this one bit. Lots of people like to chat on flights and from some reports here may even feel a bit put out if their seatmate ignores them. I could care less. While I’m certainly amenable to a bit of conversation, I don’t mind the peace and quiet either.
Here’s how I rate this flight from my Business Class perspective:
Check in: A
A very comfortable cabin, attentive FAs and a nice breakfast made for an excellent Business Class inflight experience.
** ** ** ** **
On my way off the aircraft, I grabbed a copy of the First Class menu. The transcript follows:
FIRST CLASS MENU
Auckland - Melbourne
Your entree will be served with your choice of fruit yogurt, cold cereal and breakfast breads
Scrambled Eggs Benedict with Chive Hollandaise Sauce
Presented with a fresh fruit appetizer
Chicken Parmesan with marinara sauce
Accompanied by fettuccine Alfredo and a fresh fruit appetizer
LIGHTER LUNCH OFFERING
Ham and Swiss sandwich with oven-roasted tomato soup
Presented with grilled asparagus and zucchini, plum tomatoes, Dijon mustard and a rosemary and olive roll
** ** **
FIRST CLASS WINE LIST
Brut, Dom Perignon
Pinot Gris 1999 Reserve, F.E. Trimbach
Sequoia Grove Carneros 1998 Chardonnay
Haut-Medoc Bordeaux 1996, Chateau Latour-Carnet
Louis M. Martini Russian River Valley Reserve Merlot 1996
Selected flights to and from Australia
Kangarilla Road McLaren Vale 1999 Shiraz
Selected flights to and from New Zealand
Isabel Estate Marlborough 1999 Sauvignon Blanc
With the exception of the yogurt and cold cereal, this menu is almost exactly the same as the Business Class menu. So, not counting the superior wines and liquors of which few passengers are likely to partake of at this hour of day, or the First Suites which I should imagine don't get slept in much after the two hour AKL layover and the comparatively short, mid-morning flight, United’s First Class passengers get served a meal worth perhaps $3.00 more than Business Class.
I went over to united.com and checked out the respective prices for Business Class vs. First Class on the Auckland to Melbourne route. They are:
Business Class: $586.00 USD
First Class: $726.00USD
Does anyone out there not agree that for this difference in cost, First Class should rightfully expect a little better food offering? Perhaps an egg dish offered with your choice from a variety of grilled meat accompaniments along with some mushrooms, tomatoes and/or potatoes as well?
Mind you, I’m not advocating that anyone has to eat all this. I am saying however that in International First Class, for the difference in cost, one should have more and better items available from which to choose. That's the cost of doing business if you’re going to charge these kinds of fares and call your service an international quality First Class.
Given United's present financial predicament coupled with a long tradition of offering what is at best only a mediocre International First Class product, any changes for the better would seem extremely unlikely. As it is, a sizeable percentage of United's First Class clientele are traditional Economy Class passengers travelling on an upgrade/award or they are employees so any objective and/or subjective criticism based upon real experience in F aboard quality carriers would seem equally unlikely. I strongly recommend United drop their First Class charade and in the future focus on offering a quality Business Class product.