I had traveled down on Christmas day to Christchurch. After spending 5 days in Christchurch and waking up most nights to the shaking of yet another earthquake, I was quite ready to leave. The Japanese Earthquake shortly after the Christchurch earthquake in February surpassed it in world news and severity, but the city center of Christchurch is still closed off and destruction is present all over the core of the city with most of the large buildings and hotels having to be torn down because of the excessive damage.
I headed to the airport at 2pm and dropped the rental car off. The airport is going through quite a bit of construction. I’m not sure how much of it is expansion and how much is earthquake repair. Construction is going on everywhere so it is hard to know. The airport is still relatively easy to use. No need for shuttles from the car rental lot as it is all small enough.
We checked in at the international connections desk for Business Premier Passengers. There was just one person ahead. The agent was able to tag the bags to AKL-LAX-SEA for us. She was friendly and polite as pretty much everyone is in New Zealand. I had pre selected the exit row on the 737 to AKL and then the nose of the 747 to LAX. I have noticed that on the domestic legs, the exit rows on Air New Zealand are often the last to be filled as they are considered Space + seats. With the space + section being so large, these are the last to fill. The benefit is that we got 5 seats to ourselves on both AKL-CHC and CHC-AKL legs.
We were invited to the lounge. After a couple purchases, we headed upstairs and through security. Security is always pretty easy in New Zealand. They were one of the last countries in the world to institute security on domestic flights as there was no security until 9/11 and to this day (I believe) security only applies to jets and the ATRs and Q300s don’t have security screening.
We walked through corridors of temporary walls and signs of reconstruction everywhere and a few walls with cracks visible in them. The lounge was fairly well stocked with sandwiches, cheese, fruits and plenty of beer and wine. There also is free wireless internet, so I used the opportunity to check emails on my iphone. The announcement for boarding was made and we headed over to the gate right around the corner. Air New Zealand schedules 30 minute turns for its 737s on domestic legs, so boarding is 20 minutes before departure.
Saturday December 31 2011
Air New Zealand
Flight Time: 1hr 5min
Seat 12F Exit Row
Load Factor 85%
Photo © Jonathan Rankin
The boarding gate beeped red and the agent (who I think was a flight attendant) checking boarding passes confirmed that I was ok in the exit row. I headed to the plane where the flight attendant checks the boarding pass again. I have noticed in Australia and New Zealand that often a flight attendant helps check boarding passes at the gate. It makes sense to help reduce gate staff work load, but it seems odd to me since I am used to US regulations with the minimum number of flight attendants must remain on board whenever passengers are on board in case an evacuation must be completed even at the gate.
The exit row with 11F missing is quite comfortable. It’s about the best on this plane since Air New Zealand eliminated first class. I guess it makes sense since their longest domestic route is under 2 hours, but first class would be nice for those who are continuing on long haul flights. Air New Zealand is also eliminating first class on their trans-tasman flights with the A320s.
The flight attendant told me that since there was an empty space in front of me, all my belongings had to go in the overhead locker. Boarding was fairly orderly and quick. Air New Zealand restricts cabin baggage to 7kgs and they are rather strict with this. The result is that boarding is extremely quick and overhead bins are not clogged. There are a few larger bags on board that get through or might have been lightly packed. I honestly think that a weight limit is what is needed for cabin baggage in the United States. Obviously it is too difficult to enforce baggage requirements with the size guides at US airports. A simple scale would be wonderful.
The boarding door is closed and electronics are turned off. Next comes the safety video. Air New Zealand is one of the few 737 classic operators with overhead screens installed. It is the comedy video that Air New Zealand put far more effort than required when making. It features Richard Simmons narrating it with his comedic brightly colored work out video and other New Zealand celebrities and All Blacks players. It can get old, but I found myself watching it each time. I appreciate the different approach to the safety briefing. It goes along with Air New Zealand’s desire to be different.
We pushed back and taxied to the end of the runway. It was a quick taxi on the overcast day. The takeoff was quick and we were off into the air. I got a view of Christchurch and all the cranes and rubble that is what remains of the old city center. I was glad to be getting away. What once was a beautiful city is now a disaster area that can’t easily be cleaned up because the earthquakes do not stop.
The seat belt sign goes off 3 minutes after takeoff as we are around 10,000ft. Air New Zealand has it off relatively early in flight. It seems a bit early to be up as the airplane is still in a strong climb. Shortly after we are airborne the crew passes out the snacks. They offer the choice of crackers, chips or biscuits. This is followed by water, tea or coffee. They do not offer any other choice of beverage. This seems odd to me because I am used to a full beverage selection on all flights. Air New Zealand eliminated this a few years ago. If you go back 10 years when Ansett New Zealand was flying, NZ had first class and full meals in coach.
Photo © Jonathan Rankin
I declined the offerings and just read a book. Trivia was playing on the screens. I had picked up the book Daughers of Erebus about the Air New Zealand DC10 crash in Antarctica 32 years ago. It is an interesting read, but in my opinion more of a journalist bashing the establishments of government and big business than a technical analysis of a tragic accident. There is a lot of cloud cover, so there is not much to see out the window. Overall it is a pretty smooth flight without much to comment on.
We begin our descent with the captain making an announcement that cannot be heard over the PA. I really hate it when they do that. We have a few bumps and make a straight in approach to AKL. We are a few minutes ahead of schedule. I had my bag stored under the middle seat which was vacant on approach which the flight attendant told me is not acceptable. She put it in the overhead for me. I was a bit confused why they do not allow passengers to store items under seats which were vacant. I don’t see how that affects an evacuation and don’t know of any other airlines with that requirement.
After landing we taxi to the domestic terminal. With few carry on items everyone quickly gets off and we are into the terminal. It felt good to be on solid ground and not have to worry about an earthquake or see construction barricades everywhere. It was warm and muggy as we made the walk to the international terminal. With all the construction that has happened at AKL, I still wonder why they have to have separate terminals. There are quite a few people walking back and forth between the two following the green line. It is nice to get some fresh air and see the jumbos at the international terminal with a QF 747, NZ 777-300, NZ777-200, 2 NZ 747-400s, EK A380, KE 747-400, 2 NZ A320s, CZ 777-200 and a few others.
We go to the premium check in area, which is a nice lounge area with separate check in desks, couches and tables to fill out immigration forms It is a very nice setup. Fortunately the pointless payment to the bank of New Zealand that used to have to be made prior to immigration is gone. It never made sense why they could not include it in the price of the ticket and after decades, they finally did. We get in the elevator to go up to the immigration counter with another couple and their child (there is no stair case or escalator to the premium immigration area). We go up, but the door does not open. We try to push buttons, but we are stuck in the elevator. Nothing is happening and just as we start looking for the alarm button because we genuinely feel trapped the elevator moves down. It goes back to the check in level. After deciding to wait there for 30 seconds, the door opens and we are glad to be alive. I get out with my companion as I have no desire to see where the elevator of doom will go on its next stop, but the other couple stays inside. I wait to see what happens. A minute later it returns and it is empty, so either they were dropped off into an abyss never to be found, or on this attempt they made it to immigration. I decided to try my luck and get inside again. This time we make it up with no problem. The other couple was at the desk. No clue as to what had happened, but in my opinion I wish they had never replaced the escalator that used to go to immigration.
Next we head to the lounge. We only have 15 minutes there. When buying the ticket, they only offered the 1hr 25min connection. I would have preferred to leave CHC on the flight that leaves 30 minutes earlier, but NZ prefers to sell it this way. The lounge has some various food and beverage choices. It is crowded, but not completely full. The in flight concierge announces himself in the lounge which is a nice feature that NZ offers. I’m not sure how many people use this feature, but he has general flight information, information on connections and procedures along with basic tourist guide offerings. It is nice that he comes into the lounge as well to introduce himself.
We head out before the announcement and walk through all the shops. There were plenty of people offering samples. It seems a bit odd to offer tasting samples of vodka, but New Zealand is a different country. We are departing out of gate 8. There is a document check for both LAX and SFO flights which holds everyone up in a queue. They have a list printed of those that need extra screening. No clue as to how the list is generated, but likely computer generated based on some criteria. I was glad not to be included.
I get to the gate and as is typical for Air New Zealand there are many people standing around and few announcements are made, which results in relatively confused people. I was glad to see a Business Premier sign and head over there. My ticket is scanned and I head down the jetbridge to the 747.
December 31 2011
Air New Zealand
Auckland – Los Angeles
Depart: 7:15pm (actual 7:08pm)
Arrive: 10:15am (actual 9:50am)
Flight Time: 11hrs 26min
Distance: 6502 miles
Load Factor 100%
Photo © Jonathan Rankin
On the jetbridge is the concierge who looks more like a bouncer than a concierge. He is one big guy who looks like he belongs in a rugby game, which certainly is not the typical flight attendant. We are directed to the left, which is always a pleasant feeling. The brown leather seats are showing some wear and tear, but still relatively inviting. Not quite the same feeling as the white seats in the colorful 777-300ER interior, but still a good product.
I get to my seat and put my belongings in my own overhead compartment. A flight attendant is immediately there to assist with any needs. He asks if I am familiar with the seat and I say yes. He says if I have any questions, he’ll be here for the next 11 ½ hours. He was kind and welcoming and came back with drink offers. I have some water and get settled for the flight. I was glad to be on the earlier flight since the later one induces too much jetlag in my opinion.
Photo © C.S. Photography
I get settled and look out the window at the terminal. The airplane is conveniently named Christchurch. Not surprising for an airplane soon headed to the scrapyard. The nose section with 14 seats is very comfortable and is quite roomy. It is nice to have some space to move around and chose between two aisles to get to the lavatories. Overall the new 777s are nicer up front, but you never can complain about being in the front of a 747.
The door is closed early and I notice that all the seats are taken. This will be a full flight. We push back with a wave of the gate staff to the cockpit crew. The same comedic safety video is played and the flight attendants hustle to get all the glasses collected and everything stored away. We make a relatively powerful takeoff run with what appeared to be an intersection takeoff.
We takeoff into the evening sky with a few bumps. After a few minutes the concierge welcomes us aboard and identifies himself as the big tall guy with a funny looking hair color. He welcomes us on one of their classic 747s. That makes me feel a bit old since I remember how much praise there was for the 747-400s in 1989 as Air New Zealand was proudly receiving their first which allowed for nonstop flights to LAX and avoid the painful stopover in HNL. It is a bit sad that now these are viewed as classics and are being retired.
In the seat was a box with eye, lip and skin lotion along with toothbrush, socks, ear plugs, and eye shade. It had everything you need. The idea of a box is a bit different. I prefer a zipper pouch since it was hard to store in the seat area and the lid did not stay on well. The seat is the same as the Virgin Upper Class suite. It can be reclined for takeoff which is nice. It also does not feel narrow at all. Being the first of the herringbone seats means that a few others have improved on the concept, but still it is a good product.
The flight attendants begin the service and offer drinks. I have a glass of sparkling water and start the movie The Birdcage which I hadn’t seen in ages. There was a selection of about 75 movies and 60 television shows. The newer 777-300s have it available as soon as you board which is a very nice feature and also have the touch screen. I really enjoy systems that work from the moment you get on the plane rather than having to wait for takeoff. The system on the 747s is older. Also it uses a remote and is a bit slow to load. It took a while to get through the movies and also I had trouble figuring out how to adjust the brightness.
The appetizer was passed out with a tray and consisted of a small piece of salmon with garnish. It was pretty tasteless, much like the rest of food in New Zealand (in my opinion). Nothing special, but I wouldn’t really expect stunning flavors in a country that seems to focus on fresh quality food rather than strong flavors or spices. Along with it I had some garlic bread which was stale and the butter had not fully melted. They seemed to be topping up drinks and my sparkling water got topped up with some regular water. The flight attendants were all moving quickly completing the service. It seems to work, but it always seems a bit scattered and disorganized. It was much better than the partially filled 777 on the flight down which consisted of the crew taking orders on post it notes and main courses randomly appearing and going to the wrong people. The main choices on this flight were rack of lamb, snapper, chicken thigh, and polenta. I chose the later from the concierge who seemed confused when I said vegetarian polenta and needed to check the menu to understand I wanted the lighter meal option.
The polenta came and again was rather tasteless. The one flavor was goat cheese. It wasn’t bad at all and was soft and fluffy, but it was not a stunning creation. The catering ex-LAX seemed to be a bit better, but I guess this is the taste preferred. While eating, the passenger across the aisle who may have had a bit too much whiskey somehow managed to throw two glasses onto himself and across the floor. The ice cubes made it over to my area and he got up and was grabbed by three flight attendants. He might have had a bit much and they took his seat cushion to clean it and cleaned the mess. Air New Zealand has quite a large selection of wines and spirits. They had about 8 different choices of wine available and a guide was included in the seat.
My plate was cleared after having a bit more stale bread. The dessert selection were a tart or ice cream. I had the ice cream which was apple crumble and blackberry which I thought was quite nice. They had port to go with it, but I did not have any.
After dessert was cheese which I had as I was not quite full. Portions are reasonable but not overly large on Air New Zealand so unlike many airlines, I don’t feel completely stuffed after eating. The movie ended and people began settling down. At this point I noticed how busy the lavatories were. 2 lavatories for 36 business class passengers seemed rather busy for most of the flight. I’m not sure if premium economy shared to them as well, but there usually was a line.
I changed as the seats tend to be a bit warm to sleep in when using the thick duvet. The flight attendant converted my seat to a bed and it was about 2.5 hours into the flight at this point. At 10pm New Zealand Time, I go to sleep and notice how comfortable the seat is. It is very wide near the shoulders so it is easy to store a few things. The only downside is the ventilation ducting that reduces head room a bit. Sleep was not fully uninterrupted, but I got about 6 hours of sleep before a flight attendant woke me up for breakfast. As it was 4:30am New Zealand time, I had no desire for food, so I went back to sleep. I wish they had asked before you go to sleep if you want to be waken for breakfast, but the service in general seemed a bit too disorganized for anyone to list which passengers wanted to be awoken and which preferred to sleep.
I slept another hour before waking and getting changed. There was still another hour of flight left, but all the service for breakfast was done and almost all the service items had been collected. I ask for some coffee and have some of their wake up smoothie. It would be nice if they waited a bit longer. I don’t think they need two hours to do a breakfast service, but with the staffing where it is I guess that is what is required.
All the flight attendants seemed to be very busy and it was an imposition to ask for a refill on the coffee but eventually I found a flight attendant who would give some cold coffee.
The captain announced we’d begin our descent in 8 minutes and that we were making some turns to slow us down. I watched a bit more and filled out the customs form. We came in over Catalina Island, rounded the port of Long Beach and made our approach into LAX. The 747 is very quiet up front until the landing gear deploys. We settle down on the runway to end our journey across the Pacific. We taxi to terminal 2 and need a tow to the gate. I assume that is because the gates are so tight that the pilots cannot see the ground crew when taxiing up to the gate.
The flight attendants hold back economy passengers and friendly chat as we wait to leave. Overall it was just another transpacific crossing. A pleasant flight with nothing that had gone wrong other than a broken elevator and some spilled whiskey. We are some of the first off and fortunately beat another 747 to the gate so there was no queue at immigration. The officers were quick and harmless and made the way to baggage claim. The crew shortly followed. The priority bag tags worked and our bags were out with the exception of one that came out with the crew bags on the oversize belt. As a side note, I was shocked at how much luggage the crew had and how they had old fashioned hard sided suitcases that seemed challenging to pull along.
Customs was also simple as the officer wanted to know where I came from and if I had less than $10,000 with me. It seems like they are not too worried about flights from New Zealand, which makes some sense as I don’t imagine an island country with fewer than 5 million residents brings too much trouble to LAX.
We carried our bags over to the Alaska Airlines check in area. The first class line was quite long and many people had large amounts of luggage. I assume that many of these passengers were headed down to Mexican destinations like GDL and bring quite a few items with them. Since we were already tagged, we got our boarding passes from a kiosk and snuck in front of the line (to an agent telling us not to) and put our bags up at the web drop off counter.
We made our way through the priority security line and through without trouble. Off to the Alaska Airlines lounge. It was small but not too busy, which surprised me with the number of flights Alaska had and the fact that Alaska allows all paid first class passengers in their lounge unlike most US airlines that require first class passengers to pay for lounge access. There were a few food offerings and I had some toast and fruit.
We head down to the gate which had been switched and see that they were already boarding. Since the first class line was hidden from view, I just joined the normal line. The gate areas are a bit crowded in LAX. Fortunately AS will soon get a better area.
December 31 2011
Los Angeles – Seattle
Departs: 12:30 (actual 12:16)
Arrives: 3:05 (actual 3:02)
Flight Time 2hrs 14min
Load Factor 100%
Distance: 954 miles
Photo © Mark T Smith
Boarding was relatively smooth and I put my bag in the overhead compartment since I was in the bulkhead along with my jacket. I settled in and just sat there as I was quite tired. The seat on the 737-400s showed its wear as it was an older style recliner without a headrest. The first class flight attendant passed out water. I noticed him thoroughly using hand sanitizer which is good because he was obviously sick. Personally I’d prefer the person handling food and beverages that I consume not to be sick, but air carriers are pretty strict on their crews to have them work as it can impact the flight. I am glad he was working, although the day after the flight I ended up staying at home sick myself.
It was obvious that they benefited from boarding early since all but two passengers were on board at 12:07. At 12:14 the last two got on and the plane was full at 12F and 132Y with a jumpseating pilot up front. There were quite a few non-revs trying to get on the flight, but I don’t think any of them made it on. The door closed at 12:16, but we waited until 12:31 to push back because of too much traffic in the alley. I think it was an Air China 747 blocking us.
We taxi to the runway and are off in a day of heavy haze. Fortunately the fog had cleared this morning as the previous morning had some diversions due to weather. The climb was very smooth, but we had quite a few turns as we climbed, which is not totally abnormal in the crowded LA airspace. It’s a lot different from the empty skies of New Zealand.
We climb up to 32,000 feet. The flight attendant offers drinks and prepares the lunch service. It was a cold chicken salad croissant sandwich. It tasted ok, but certainly not that great and more like a sandwich you’d expect in a buy on board box. Virgin America has far better food in their first class than Alaska does. A sandwich that actually tasted good would be nice. It is somewhat surprising that AS serves a hot lunch in economy yet first gets the cold dry sandwich. On the LAX-SEA sector, AS needs to improve is meals in my opinion. If you are going to serve something, it should at least taste reasonably good.
I ate my sandwich as I was surprisingly hungry. Afterwards it was time to just read a book. This airplane was not equipped with GoGo internet or at least it was not working so that meant that there was no IFE at all. Back to the classic days when there was no video, audio or internet on board. There were a few bumps and unlike Air New Zealand who keep the seat belt sign off unless it is virtually impossible to be standing, the seat belt sign was on almost the entire flight. This did not stop people from economy continuously using the forward lav. The FA didn’t care much, but did keep saying that you are welcome to use it, but you have to wait at row 6 and can’t wait in the galley.
Eventually we begin the descent into Seattle. I was glad to be back at home as the journey had been 22 hours so far. We make a few turns as we head up Puget sound before turning over downtown Seattle to make our approach.
We landed with strong braking and reverse thrust so we pulled off to make it into gate C11 without back tracking. I was second off the airplane after the jumpseating United pilot. I head into the terminal. Bags were quickly off the carousel and I was off into the limo to get home and that much desired shower.
Overall it was a good journey on both Air New Zealand and Alaska. Air New Zealand domestic is nothing special. On the international legs, Air New Zealand brings a good product. There are areas of improvement, which mostly have been addressed in Business Premier on the 777-300ERs. The ground staff was not always the most efficient, but all flights were on time. Sleeping is about as easy as it gets on their herringbone seats, which are far better than the old business class (still on the 767 fleet) or even the old first class. I appreciate that Air New Zealand tries to do something different.
I'll plan on flying Air New Zealand again next time I head down to New Zealand. Their product is good all around. The only downsides other than getting almost stuck in an elevator were normal to flying. In my opinion they are better than Qantas on the same route.
Alaska is quite predictable. On time and efficient, although meal service for their first class passengers could be improved. There were no upgrades on this flight. Everyone had paid for their first class seat, so a better service to justify the expense and providing a meal that is actually better than economy would be appreciated.
Air New Zealand
Check In 9/10 (broken elevator partially NZ’s fault)
Boarding 7/10 (Quick enough, but few announcements)
Food 6/10 (limited domestic offerings, early breakfast, ok dinner)
Crew 9/10 (not over the top, but very good overall)
Comments, feedback and questions are always appreciated.