Paging Air New Zealand, please report to the naughty corner.

A lot of folks who know me will know that I’ve held Air New Zealand in high regard for several years, that I really rated their inflight product and service, and would choose to fly Air NZ from Heathrow over to LA over other airlines such as BA or Virgin, as well as use them for flying to NZ itself.

I was particularly a big fan of their Pacific Premium Economy product – loads of leg room, and an inflight service which was deserving of the title “Premium” – offering Business class meals and fine NZ wines. I thought it represented very good value for money, and made the Virgin Premium Economy product, and especially the BA World Traveller Plus product look positively economy by comparison.

On a recent trip down to New Zealand (my third in as many years) in January, for the NZNOG meeting in Wellington, I was able to experience Air New Zealand’s new long-haul Premium Economy product on their much hyped new Boeing 777-300 aircraft on one of it’s first long haul flights.

Sadly, while the product was innovative, I was not impressed. I felt underwhelmed and disappointed with the experience, compared to that I would have received on the older plane. What’s worse is that it wasn’t all teething troubles. Sure, there were some teething troubles. But many were what I see as basic issues with the new product.

I found the new “SpaceSeat” anything but spacious – it felt confining, with the TV screen mere inches from your face, and at a weird angle compared to the seatback (and therefore your body), so you have to turn your neck or sit sort of twisted into a side-saddle position to try and be comfortable and watch a film at the same time.

The “seat pocket” as provided was a joke – it was made of a solid material (rather than an elasticated netting), and wasn’t even big enough to fit a book in.

The area of the aircraft I was sat in felt incredibly hot, stuffy and uncomfortable. Despite the crew setting a cooler temperature, where I was sat, it never seemed to cool down or get any sort of noticeable airflow.

I’m not normally a claustrophobic person, but I can only describe what I felt as being “freaked out” by the environment created by the cabin – from the stuffy air to the TV in your face, to the lack of space – and this was in a window seat!

I thought the personal space on the new product rather inferior to that you get on Air NZ’s 747-400 planes.

The fact is, Air NZ have, for some reason, crammed the rows of seats very tightly. I would probably be inclined to pay a little more if a row or so of seats was pulled out and spread between the other seats. Just to get that TV a bit further away from my face.

The inflight service was of a reduced quality compared to the old service, at least as far as I was concerned. It was very slow, due to the fiddly nature of the service, and because of the seat being angled away from the aisle, so tight up to the back of the seat in front, it wasn’t really possible to have any sort of interaction with the crew member serving you from the aisle, as this would involve being able to turn your head through much greater than 90 degrees.

This meant that it was much more difficult to experience the “soft side” of the service of the great Air NZ crews, as you couldn’t easily make eye-contact with them. They just became this sort of disembodied arm and hand pushing food and drinks in front of you. It also took over two (and more like three) hours to serve the main meal.

This seems to fly in the face of what Air NZ were aiming for, which was a more personal service!

It’s fair to say that on the older aircraft, Air NZ didn’t have the best PE seat in the sky, but I think they had the best Premium Economy soft product, in terms of the food and level of service. Air NZ seem to have gutted that great soft product, in order to provide what they percieve as a “better seat”.

There are other comedy errors, such as the location of the Premium Economy galley (over the wing) meant that it couldn’t have a hot water tap. If passengers ordered coffee or tea, it had to be brought from the other galleys – meaning staff walking through the cabin with jugs/flasks of hot water from the other galleys – not made easy because the aisles have been made narrower!

The changes don’t just affect the Premium Economy product, either. The quid-pro-quo of the “Economy Skycouch” product is that the Economy cabin is seated 10-across, which doesn’t sound bad, until you realise this is on a Boeing 777, which most other airlines, including Air NZ themselves on their 777-200s, only seat 9-across.

The aisles are noticeably narrower – more folk in the aisles will notice they get bumped – as are the seats themselves. A friend travelled in the back on the 777-300 and found it unbearably uncomfortable, having to sit with their shoulders “tucked in”. I can understand this on a 20-minute commute to Central London, but not on a 13 hour flight from LA to NZ.

The seat pitch (the space between the seats) in Economy has also been cranked down from 34″ on the 747-400 to 31-32″ on the 777-300. Air NZ have gone from one of the best Economy products in the sky to one of the most unbearably cramped in one fell swoop. Feels like a step backwards, and it’s not just me. There’s plenty of discussion about it on that perennial thorn-in-the-side of airlines, Flyertalk.

When the product was launched, it was accompanied by a lot of fanfare about the months of painstaking research that has gone on behind the scenes. If there has been all this research, how can the product be full of what I (as a 100K mile per year traveller) regard as such schoolboy errors.

Also interesting to observe is that there has been what I percieve to be an astroturfing campaign about how great the new products are via their social media outlets such as their Twitter account, yet nothing about the nightmares that I know for a fact they have been having with the new service. Oh, and what is it with that dreadful muppet character, Rico? How is that related to (what should be) high quality air travel?

So, not really enjoying this flight much, I contacted Air NZ to offer my feedback on the flight.

Sadly, after waiting about 6 to 8 weeks, all I got was a dreadful, bland, canned reply which basically indicated a “head in the sand” approach, that there couldn’t really be anything seriously wrong with their wonderful new product, could there, and these were all flukes which would be fixed next time I flew. Like I believed that.

They may as well have just said “You are free to take your business elsewhere”. Well, sadly, that’s what I’ve done on my next trip to California.

On 1st April, the last 747-400 operated NZ1 will leave Heathrow, and the next day London gets the “downgrade” to 777-300 service. The regulars won’t know what’s hit them.

Update – Thursday 31st March 2011

So, a few folks thought I was just having a rant here. Perhaps because it sounded a bit ranty, or I wasn’t explicit about something I wanted to get across:

What’s really disappointed me here is that an organisation which seemed to be switched on yet still be able treat it’s customers with good old-fashioned respect, and in the past seemed to have a great grasp of what people wanted, could have gone off the rails quite so spectacularly with a string of apparently shallow and unpopular moves.

6 thoughts on “Paging Air New Zealand, please report to the naughty corner.”

  1. Hi Mike,
    I agree with you totally and so do my business acquaintances who have been loyal Air NZ flyers. We are all looking at alternatives from NZ to Europe and Singapore and Emirates both seem attractive over ANZ’s “new” product.

  2. I have been a loyal Air NZ flyer for many years except when living in Australia and travelling from there. However I think the whole company is going downhill. Flew to Japan a month ago and found a live cockroach in my meal. Managed to catch it and gave it to the flight steward. They wanted to give me another meal!! Wonder how many would have been in that one… put me off the food. Wouldn’t have happened if they still had their own caterers. Haven’t even got an apology from them or a written “we will look into it”, so they don’t think too much of their clients…Biggest joke was the flight steward said they would look after us on the return flight. Their idea of looking after us was to give us a pair of business class headphones…….what a joke.. Don’t know about you, but a cockroach in your food is pretty low – even for an airline of their quality who are pretty small in the world of airlines. Think they would go the extra few yards to avoid blogs like these…

    1. I’ve only once found an “unwelcome visitor” in an airline meal in about 15 years of flying regularly, and that was in a salad. The critter had obviously come in with the leaves and clung on tenaciously enough to have not been removed by the washing process. It was a very sleepy bug, having been chilled down to 5degC, it was sort of waking up, having started to warm back up to cabin temperature.

      The airline (UA) actually handled it very well. As with you, they offered me a different alternative meal. They also clingfilmed the dish containing our “stowaway” and put it in a ziplock bag – as policy says it has to go to the catering department for investigation. The Purser wrote it up in their flight report, showed me what they had written up and asked me if I was happy with their report. Being a member of their FF scheme, they gave me a voucher which allowed goodwill (mileage based) gestures to be credited to my FF account. They generally made sure that I wasn’t allowed to have an empty glass for the rest of the flight. Good job I didn’t have to drive at the far end!

      On arrival, I was met at the aircraft door by the UA inflight service/catering manager at my destination airport (it being a large UA hub, it had higher echelons of staff working on site), who explained the process which had already been kicked off. Obviously terrified I might sue, it being a US company! They even followed up with the result of their investigation which said “Yes, it’s a bug which would have lived in the field where the salad leaves were grown and just didn’t get washed off properly, we checked and didn’t find any more of these bugs roaming the kitchen when your food was prepared that day. We’re really sorry.” Sadly, pests present a problem in commercial kitchens, all you can do is keep things clean so that there’s little to attract critters, and have a treatment regime in place.

      It’s worth remembering that there’s only so much an airline cabin crew can do once the door is shut and they are at 30,000ft. They’ve only got the resources they have inside their aluminium tube to try and deliver an immediate solution. On some airlnes, the only resources they have at their disposal are their smile and their wits! But, how the crew member handles it at the time is important – if they appear to care about the problem, and try their best to make up for it with the limited resources they have to hand, it’s already a step in the right direction. But I agree that the follow up from the supporting functions on the ground, such as customer relations, is absolutely vital. You should have had your details taken by the FSM (the head flight attendant on Air NZ international flights), and been followed up once your journey was complete.

      The fact is, a foreign body in the food should trigger certain items of paperwork to be done and a degree of follow-up – it should be part of the airline and caterers HACCP procedures. UA were transparent to me about that. It seems that Air NZ weren’t in your case, and didn’t do themselves any favours.

      It’s weird what’s happening to Air NZ. Rob Fyfe is a passionate leader. But, it’s been reported that he also gives those around him a lot of latitude and freedom. It seems that freedom also includes the ability to make mistakes at times. Hopefully, when they make mistakes, they learn from them. However, they are taking a fair buffeting at the moment. Not good.

  3. Hi, you will be pleased to know that Air NZ have removed 1 row from Premium Economy on the 777-300. More room! They do listen to your comments and everyone else that complained (including crew!).

    1. About flipping time. Just how it got through the design process still baffles me.

      Hopefully they’ve now ironed out the wrinkles in the soft product as well, so maybe I’ll give it a go on my next SoCal trip, which should be in early February.

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