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.

A flight with the Abseiling Air NZ Captain

I thought the name sounded familiar when I heard the Captain’s welcome aboard before departing Auckland to skirt around the bottom of Cyclone Wilma – Peter Clulow. Where had I heard that name before…

Then I realised that it was the Air New Zealand Captain that abseiled down a building in London as part of their great “It’s a Kiwi Thing” campaign a couple of years ago.

While the first half hour of the flight was “interesting” thanks to Wilma – from my vantage point sat in 2K, right up in the nose of the mighty 747, it was possible to hear the wind whipping around the airframe – it certainly can’t have been as hair raising as rappelling of the front of a building, which is probably not a bad thing.

Another Conference Season is Upon Us…

So, the grand Internet Travelling Circus, sated by it’s Christmas and New Year libations and relaxations, takes to the skies, rails, roads, seas, etc., and heads off to locations exotic, and less so, for the next round of the conference season…

In the next three weeks, I’ll be attending:

  • UKNOF 18 in London (almost certainly less exotic…), where I’m helping organise the programme and help build the conference connectivity.
  • NZNOG ’11 in Wellington, NZ (more exotic, takes a day on a plane to get there, but likely to rain), where I’m speaking on regional peering initiatives, possible theories why they haven’t worked well in the UK, and how that might be different in NZ.
  • NANOG 51 in Miami, FL (warm, beaches, possible thunderstorms), where I’m going to help newcomers get a handle on the beast that is the NANOG meeting, and get the best out of it… namely: ask questions, drink, be sociable. All of these can be tough for the average introverted geek on the street. 🙂
  • I’ll also be passing through LA on the way to/from NZ and MIA. Long story, but happy to go for lunch/dinner/drinks.

This is then followed by Apricot in Hong Kong at the end of Feb, but I suspect I’m not going to that, instead choosing to stay at home in the UK and indulge myself playing with steam trains…