Premium Economy Spaceseat, The Trial: NZ 77W Inaugural AKL-MEL
Air New Zealand ordered the Boeing 777-300ER in August 2007 as a replacement for the 747-400. Having initially ordered 4 with 3 options, only one of those options have so far been exercised with the reason being that the economic climate at the time wasn’t right for purchasing excessive aircraft [Air NZ have now ordered another 2 for delivery in 2014]. Originating from the purchase of the 787-9 and the willingness to want to change the way people fly, Air New Zealand set off to find ways of how to revolutionise travel. As you’re probably well aware, a lot of planning led to the design of the Economy Skycouch, which is a bed made up from 3 seats and the gap being filled by a footrest; and also the Premium Economy Spaceseat – the showpiece of today’s report.
A while back, Air New Zealand had the 77W up for operating its first commercial flight from Auckland to Brisbane on NZ135. Not thinking it’d change, I couldn’t be any more wrong.
Air New Zealand has changed the fare structure on flights to Australia, the Pacific Islands and now also the leisure long haul destinations like Bali. You can buy just the seat (no meal, no movies, no luggage), the seat and a bag, “The Works” (just like how Economy has been for the last few years) and the more expensive fare “Works Deluxe” which allows 2 bags, premium check in, lounge access and premium seating.
The removal of Business Class from the A320 fleet means that Works Deluxe is now the top product offered out of all the other international airports apart from Auckland, where Business Class still exists on the wide bodies. This in turn means that the Premium Economy cabins in the 747s and the 777s turn into Works Deluxe areas and even then, you’re guaranteed an empty seat next to you in the ‘old’ Y+ seats of the 744 and 772.
So this is where it all starts off. I purchased a Works Deluxe fare for what I thought was going to be the inaugural flight of this NZ 77W to Brisbane. Everything was set.. I had self-connecting domestic tickets in hand as well. The whole new fare structure was confusing to customer service people and nobody could give me a reason for me not being able to select a window seat, nor could anyone select one for me. It took a little while for that to be solved. Anyway, a couple of months out from the flight, I noticed that the seat map for the flight had suddenly changed and was showing a 772. A little check to the timetable on the website showed that the January 10 flight to Brisbane was indeed a 772 but the same day’s flight to Melbourne was now a 77W. So much for booking early, I now had a booking change to deal with. The moral of the story being don’t book too far out from an inaugural flight – they could just change the destination on you! The only way for one to change flights on Air NZ in this situation is to either go to the airport or ring up their customer service line. I rang them and got an extremely unhelpful person who hung up on me 3 times after waiting for long periods of time. I finally got a friendly person on the other end a day later but the bad news was that I’d have to pay heaps to change my flights. Not being able to do anything else, I went with it and changed my flights.
That seemed enough of an intro! Welcome to my 20th trip report. This report covers my flight on the first commercial flight of Air New Zealand’s brand new 777-300ER in the stylish Premium Economy Spaceseat.
Some photos in this report have been kindly provided by fellow photographer and friend Sarmad Al-Khozaie, who flew the new 77W a few days later. His photos are credited accordingly. Photos in this report are copyright of their respective owners.
So thinking I had got through the hassle of changing my flight, there was one final unexpected hurdle to jump. 2 days out from the flight, I checked the seat I had reserved again to find that the seat number had been taken off again.. Meaning only one thing – there was an equipment change. Surely enough, the 772 was shown to be operating this flight. Frantically trying to see when it was being pushed back to, I eventually found out it was operating the day after it was scheduled to depart so the panic began. I’m not sure if I would have made it without the help of an Air NZ staff member. Luckily enough for me, there was still room on this flight and I was relieved to have a ticket in my hand for the inaugural 77W flight, now happening on Tuesday the 11th of January. It did seem strange sitting at home on that Monday, watching NZ135 fly out to BNE as one of the flights I could have been on had the schedule remained the same.
11 January 2011
It was an early wake up for me. I was awake to watch the sun rise spectacularly with brilliant shades of blue, violet, purple, red and yellow; similar to the wonderful sunrise I experienced on my flight to LAX. My uncle picked me up at 5:45 and without any traffic on the road, it took no time at all.
So, being a Works Deluxe passenger today, I was entitled to use the Premium check in facility at AKL. It is a separate room on its own to the side of the Air NZ check in desks. It used to look much more flash and exclusive before they gave it a facelift to match what they were doing for the rest of their check in area. It does utilise more space than the previous version but all they have done is added a small desk, a couple of self service check in kiosks and a bag drop area for use by short haul international passengers. I arrived at the area to find one person helping out a couple to check in and no other free ground staff around. I proceeded to check myself in which didn’t take long at all. The difference between these machines and the ones in the domestic terminal is that the international ones have passport readers, making it compulsory to scan your passport. So, what is the consequence of being understaffed in this situation? A queue builds up for the bag drop off area. At least 4 minutes of waiting around seemed like much longer and I wondered if I would have been better off going to the check in counter further down or even to the normal check in kiosks like the rest of Economy. In fact, I probably would have saved time going over there to drop my bags off. Never mind that, there was an apology for the wait and I was finally free to go.
The great thing about the positioning of the Air NZ premium check in facility is that it’s directly underneath the immigration checkpoint. One short lift ride from that secluded area means that you don’t have to walk a long way just to join the queue with everyone else – your very own immigration officer is waiting at the top of the lift! It didn’t take long for him to check my passport although it would have been quicker to have used Smartgate to leave NZ as well. It was much faster than waiting to drop my bag off.
As you know from my previous trip report, the airside area at Auckland has undergone a makeover for the Rugby World Cup in October/November 2011. It wasn’t quite ready in November but it was officially opened in December to reveal a spacious area. The ‘tree’ is the centerpiece and most of the shops are around this area.
Nothing else was new so I headed to the Air New Zealand lounge.
I was warmly greeted by the ground staff at the entrance area of the lounge.
Air New Zealand’s lounge is quite big – at least it felt that way so early on in the morning. I wouldn’t imagine it being full to the brim but there must be times where the lounge is bustling. There are many TVs around the place, a couple of bars closely resembling what the one at LAX looks like, a quiet area, business area and free wifi. Being open for the vast majority of the day, it would be expected of them to serve various different meals during the day. I wasn’t disappointed at the selection when I took my first look. Hot food, cold food, a barista on duty for any espresso coffee one could simply order – I guess the only ‘complaint’ could be the wait to use the small toaster! There were plenty of people on hand to help out if necessary.
Selection of cereals
So after eating a little and doing a bit of dozing off in the lounge, it was soon time for boarding. I didn’t wait for the announcement but I knew it would have been any moment. Today, we were departing from Gate 3. What a magnificent sight it was to see this brand new 77W waiting for its first revenue flight! Now you could just imagine what my face would look like if they had done another switcheroo on me..
So, waiting for boarding to begin, the person announcing the boarding over the PA was just as confused as everyone else. She said that boarding would begin shortly but people were already being let onboard due to an earlier announcement made by another staff member. She clicked about a minute later. It was a pretty tight squeeze and nobody could really tell if there was a separate line for premium passengers or not. But anyway, a nice greeting by the people at the gate saw me on my way down the air bridge and onto the first commercial Air New Zealand 777-300ER flight.
11 January 2011
Routing: Auckland - Melbourne (AKL-MEL)
Airline: Air New Zealand
Flight: NZ 123
Scheduled Time of Departure: 0800hrs (GMT+13)
Actual Departure: 0819hrs (pushback), 0837hrs (rotate) (GMT+13)
Scheduled Time of Arrival: 1000hrs (GMT+11)
Touchdown: 1003hrs (GMT+11)
Flight time: 3hr 42min
Aircraft: Boeing 777-300ER (-319ER)
Seat: 27A Premium Economy Spaceseat
Air New Zealand took delivery of ZK-OKM, their first 777-300ER, on 24 December 2010. It is the first of 5 on order [They have since ordered another two, for delivery in 2014]. 3 will be in the fleet by April when the 77W will be deployed daily on NZ1/2 – AKL-LAX-LHR. Air New Zealand have laid it out so that basically half the plane is for premium seating and the rest is Economy.
The mood lighting which created a very pleasant atmosphere in the Business cabin faded into the full glary white, as what was seen in the Premium Economy cabin. It would have been so much nicer had mood lighting been used throughout the plane.
So for those who have travelled in Business on the old seats, there is basically only a cosmetic change:
New Business Class on ZK-OKM by Tranquillity Aviation, on Flickr
Image Copyright Sarmad Al-Khozaie
There were plenty of FAs to assist passengers in the Premium Economy cabin – two were in my aisle. I reached my seat to find my seatmate already seated (hence lack of space to take pictures of the row.. The aisle was pretty packed actually, impossible to take many pics) and since nobody has grasped the way Air NZ designed the seats allowing the person seated on the aisle to swivel in his seat towards the aisle to allow the other person access to the window, he got out of his seat so I could get in. It felt like a bit of a squeeze to get into the somewhat secluded seat facing the windows with my belongings. What made it worse was the fact that there were these huge down pillows just filling up the space on the seat. Everyone in Premium Economy also had a noise cancelling headset waiting for them.
There certainly has been some talk about the new seats Air New Zealand has come up with for Premium Economy. Remember, it is only Premium Economy after all. The layout of 2-2-2 (50 seats in total) in a widebody does make it sound roomy but the legroom provided isn’t the greatest [They listened to customer feedback and removed a row to increase legroom]. Being seated at the window didn’t give me a good opportunity to test out the other 2 types of seats within the class – the aisle seat on the sides and one of the seats in the middle. There has been word that the window seats have the most legroom out of the normal Premium Economy seats (excluding the bulkhead). For someone like me who is only about 1.7m (5’7”) tall, the seat is great. There is definitely sufficient legroom for someone my size although add 10cm onto my height and it’ll start to push the comfort levels when in the fully reclined position. The B and J seats didn’t seem to offer very good legroom at all. There is virtually no underseat storage space – the underlying rule seemed to be that if the FAs couldn’t see it behind the beanbag, it was considered ok. I would have had a little more legroom if I had stored my camera bag in the overhead bins but even with it sitting behind the beanbag, it was more than comfortable.
The seat itself, along with the Economy Skycouch, was thought up by the innovative people at Air New Zealand down by Auckland Harbour. It is a fixed shell seat whereby the recline ‘eats into’ your legroom as such as you slide forward. As I mentioned above, you’d be a pretty spoilt person if you were shorter than about 1.8m and found yourself uncomfortable with the legroom. There’s a ‘tilt’ button as well which, in short, means that the bottom cushion of the seat tilts down on an angle (when reclined) to support the back of the leg and bottom without feeling of you slipping off the seat or all the pressure going to one point in your lower back/bottom. The position was extremely comfortable for me.
Middle seats (taken at an earlier date)
The buttons, located just under the seat
Recline and tilt (hard to notice)
Instead of having a footrest built into the seat, they decided that a beanbag would be a good idea so that people could position it in a way that it would be comfortable to people. It was nice to be able to do that – a big step up from the hard bar footrest found in the old Premium Economy product.
One armrest for those seated on all window facing seats has to be stowed for takeoff and landing. I don’t like it myself as I like having both armrests in reach to rest on. But the huge pillow was stuffed under my elbow to try and create the same effect. There are no adjustable winged headrests in Premium Economy, hence the huge down pillows on offer. I would probably actually prefer the winged headrests as they don’t take up much space and they’re not bad at keeping their position.
Getting out of the window seat may prove a problem on a long haul flight. There is absolutely no space to get out when the TV screen and tray table are extended. It’d be a real challenge to get out if the person on the aisle is sleeping.
The seatbelt is similar to how the Business Class one is – it includes an airbag and resembles an old car’s middle seat’s belt more than the traditional plane buckle.
The colour of the seat has got me guessing how long it’ll last. The leather is quite white and soft and I don’t think it’ll take much to mark and tarnish.
Air New Zealand has released a new version of IFE to replace the Rockwell Collins system which is currently in the 744s and 772s. The new one is made by Panasonic and is similar to the one used on the A320 and 763 fleets. The name given to it by Air NZ is Kupe. It is powerful and holds much more content than the system on the 744 and 772. It has music, movies and TV shows but also has a few Youtube clips which have been put onto the system for people to watch onboard. You can order snacks and drinks through the system like how you can currently do on Virgin America’s IFE. There are other nifty things included and the Airshow function is superb. One wish would be that they added metric measurements! -69F doesn’t mean a thing to me, other than it’s cold..
The TV itself is touch screen but can also be controlled by the handset provided. The TV pops out on the press of a button and swivels out on an arm and can be positioned on any angle you want, including being tilted up and down to cater for the height of the passenger. It is quite ‘in your face’ when extended as far out as possible but I guess you get used to it as the flight progresses.
There’s this awesome new function called My Flight which tells you when things are available and other bits of information such as when the lights were going to be on or dimmed.
Ok, back to the flight.
As you may have noticed, all of the above photos were taken prior to us even pushing back. The FA came on over the PA after a little while and said that there had been a catering stuff up which was keeping the flight delayed and it meant that the food which was supposed to be trialled never made it near the plane. But it was fine for me as it meant I had more time to explore the seat and spend longer relaxing in the comfort of the Spaceseat. Finally, 19 minutes after scheduled departure, we pushed back. We were pushed back a long way to be alongside the new pier and as it worked out, NZ5 from LAX was pulling into Gate 15 which explained why we were towed so far back.
The safety video has been shown all around the world via Youtube.
The start up of the huge GE 90-115B engines is a delight to most. When Air India brought their 77L to Auckland to take athletes over for the Commonwealth Games in Delhi 2010, the plane was late in departure but I knew to expect it soon after I heard the start up of the engines (I couldn’t see it). It was no different this time – only my second experience of being inside a 77W! We were finally able to move once the NZ 744 had pulled into the gate and made our way to Runway 05R for departure to the east. The power of the engines is fantastic! We used just under 2km of the runway to take off and we were finally on our way to Melbourne. It didn’t seem too loud but it was certainly louder than an Airbus of a similar size. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a plane which has taken such a quick and sharp turn after departure from AKL! It was a great feeling!
The seatbelt sign was turned off quite early into the flight so I was quick to get up and take a wander around the cabin.
As I walked into Economy, the first thing to notice was the tight aisle people had to squeeze down to get to their seats. Secondly, the whole front of the seat is black, not only adding to the claustrophobia, but also making it harder to see where you’re going.
Upon my entry back through the curtains to Premium Economy, some person noticed me taking pictures and introduced himself as one of the operations manager overseeing the 77W EIS (entry into service) and the onboard product for it. It was quite an interesting chat talking about the product and that there’ll be something new for when the 787s are delivered. I bet he has received a barrage of complaints about the seats since!
Hot towels were soon passed out to prepare everyone for breakfast. With that was an apology by the flight attendants about the late commencement of the meal service due to the fact that the caterers had made a blunder. A PA was also made, notifying that due to it being the first flight of this 777-300ER, everyone on the flight would receive free drinks, even those who only paid for just the seat. The announcer also noted that this was a sample of what it’d be like getting breakfast on a long haul flight. I hoped for a trial of their new food but I realised that the catering problem meant we’d just get normal food.
I decided to test out the games section. Bad idea, the screen froze and the system crashed. I pressed the call button and not long after, a FA attended to it and rebooted my system on request.
Finally, 1 hr 20 min into the expected 3 hr 30 min flight, the carts were wheeled to the front of the Premium Economy cabin to begin the breakfast service. Shirley, one of the two FAs operating the service in the Premium Economy cabin, called out to everyone before commencing service that it was the first time a meal was to be served on the commercial flight. This was followed by an applause led by her and eventually people started receiving food.
The tray table is cool as it’s not a traditional one. It used to be in the armrest of the old Premium Economy seats. When the button to release it is pushed, it comes down in the same way as a soft closing toilet seat. You can keep it in the half open form if you’re wishing to just hold your iPod or a drink on it but it extends further and can be swivelled around to match the angle of the seat.
Pressing the button (the other deploys the TV screen)
Air New Zealand have done away with trays (in the meantime anyway) in Premium Economy. Now there is a purple rubber placemat which is shaped for the tray table. It also serves as a non-slip surface. That is handed out first, followed by the cutlery. The cutlery was nice being metal but the spoons were awfully impractical – too shallow for any use. Today, there was a range of drinks on offer to go with the starter which were already on the cart. This included a few juices, a banana smoothie and water. The starter tray was also delivered, comprising of fruit in a bowl, yoghurt and a croissant. Just the usual here, nothing special. A miscommunication and probably due to my lack of awareness meant that I cleared my stuff away after the starter, thinking that there wasn’t going to be anything else offered. I should have realised with the amount of cutlery given out! A ceramic mug was given out if people wanted hot drinks which would come through later.
After the starter
The Y+ galley is in between the two toilets located at the rear of the Y+ cabin. I saw the main being delivered as I was passing so I asked the FA to be told it was part of the meal.. I still have no idea why I thought that the starter was all I was getting! I saw pancakes going out (wouldn’t mind having them again!) and I had to ask for a spare fork as my cutlery had been cleared away. The main was delivered an hour before landing. I had no choice of what I got but I was definitely satisfied with the meal I received – scrambled eggs and sausages with mushrooms on top with tomato and potato. It was well cooked and tasted fine. Eggs weren’t rubbery and tasted fine. Sausages were nice, well accompanied by the mushrooms. It is what you’d expect for a Premium meal and probably matched what the pancakes were like. I had a coke to accompany the meal – funnily enough, it was made in USA so it seemed to have remained on board from the media/delivery flights down from Everett via Los Angeles.
It didn’t take long to clear everything away as they needed to quickly before descent into MEL. There wasn’t much else to do but to relax for the remaining 30 minutes before landing. There wasn’t much else to see out the window but cloud. It seemed like a standard approach into Melbourne but this time, as we were in a big plane, we were to use the longer runway out of the 2 in Melbourne. This meant we took a more southerly route over the city. I have a feeling that those on the right hand side of the plane would have had a nice view of Melbourne as we turned onto final. But at least I got to see something of significance – the F1 track at Albert Park where the Australian Grand Prix is held. It was a very smooth approach and we touched down not too long after scheduled arrival.
Just as we started the taxi towards the terminal, the captain came over the PA saying that there was a shortage of gates and we had to wait until our assigned gate had freed up. I watched as an EK 777 pushed back and a D7 A333 took its spot at the terminal. I didn’t see the plane who vacated our gate but 22 minutes after landing, we finally made our way into Gate 10 to complete this first commercial flight of an Air New Zealand 777-300ER. I thanked the crew, disembarked and headed to clear customs.
Loo with a view in Business.. But not very big compared to the other one!
It was a nice experience to try these seats out. Air New Zealand is trying hard to revolutionise Premium Economy like we’ve never known it to be – more towards a J- than a Y+. From the pictures, the seats look excellent. It certainly has the potential to be a really nice seat but it’s surely not suited to every shape and size. I think it’s clear why they can’t simply remove a row and give the Premium Economy seats a bit more legroom. Everything is designed to fit with the current spacing and there’s a lot that would need to be changed to get everything right to suit a bit more legroom. The angle at which the seat faces could even change if they came to a decision to increase legroom.
I do like the 777-300ER but I don’t quite agree with what NZ has done with it – it seems as though they could have been better off ordering the 748i where the 3-4-3 arrangement in Y would have suited. Maybe the Spaceseats would have been given a bit more room too. I didn’t try out the Economy seats so I have no verdict on them apart from the fact that the aisles were very narrow and the black didn’t seem to suit as an inviting colour.
Comparing this new Spaceseat to the old Premium Economy – there are a lot of differences. First of all, the storage given with the old seat (especially the windows of the 744) was far superior – nothing could come close to the amount of storage I had on the 744 flight. Compare it to the 77W where I could only just fit the camera bag behind the bean bag and had my backpack in the overhead locker. The new seat can’t be compared to what was basically an Economy seat. The beanbag, as I said earlier, is a huge improvement over the metal bar which served as a footrest in the old seat. Legroom isn’t very good for a tall person – they’d much prefer the old style seats where you’ve got a greater pitch. Only having a maximum of one person to climb over has its benefits but it’d provide a real challenge if the person in the aisle was sleeping. In saying all of that, I’m keen to try the Premium Economy seat on a long haul flight to actually test the seat out in terms of sleeping and the likes; also the new service of order when you wish, if they still have that going (heard that meals have been taking 3 hours to deliver). Flying it short haul doesn’t quite match up to long haul travel. So there are a lot of things which NZ has to fix up before this product becomes something that matches what NZ has been known for.
The Y+ seat isn’t all bad but it’s definitely not as spacey as the title ‘Spaceseat’ implies. I do hope NZ can solve these problems and act upon them before they start losing customers. [As mentioned earlier, NZ did listen to the feedback and removed a row of Y+ in order to increase the legroom.]
My lesson has been learnt about booking inaugurals – don’t book too early but don’t leave it too long! Hopefully that won’t happen next time as well.
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