Air New Zealand’s new 777-300ER; punching above their weight

Air New Zealand's new 777

Prior to arriving in Seattle, I was completely oblivious to the events surrounding a Boeing airplane delivery.

I suppose in the back of my mind, I knew that all airplanes had to come from somewhere; but it might as well have been a mystical factory in the clouds that teleports sparkling new craft to a freshly vacated gate. I never gave consideration to the fact that after months of piecing together a giant flying technological puzzle, the manufacturer has to then “hand-off” the finished product to the airline that’s patiently awaiting the completion of their expensive investment.

But this wasn’t any typical delivery. For Air New Zealand, it was a grand celebration of four long years spent developing, prototyping, and refining an entirely new ‘cabin experience’.

The processions kicked off with a welcome dinner in a lavishly decorated event hall of Seattle’s Experience Music Project. Seated around white-clothed candlelit tables sat a mix of Boeing, Air New Zealand, and third party personnel responsible for everything onboard the new 777-300ER; right down to the seat fabrics and inflight entertainment system.

Somewhere during the conversation over dinner, a British executive from Panasonic made the statement that New Zealand is “a country that always punches above their weight”. In the time that I spent in New Zealand, I thought a lot about this statement and found that it rings true in many regards.

For a country of 4.3 million people that is literally in the corner of the world, they have managed to put themselves at the center of the world stage on several occasions. Kiwis were first in granting women the right to vote, they are the only nation in the world to successfully legislate themselves as a nuclear-free zone, and even though the All Blacks have yet to win a rugby world cup title since the very first tournament, you’d be hard pressed to find a rugby fan that doesn’t think they deserve another one.

Kiwis are a proud yet self-conscious people. One of the first questions visitors always hear is “so what do you think about New Zealand?”. Somewhere at the intersection of this ambitious yet self-aware legacy lies Air New Zealand’s desire to boldly pursue such a radically different concept and well thought-out flight experience.

The morning following Boeing’s welcome dinner, the same group of journalists and airline personnel gathered at an unusually sunny Boeing Field to walk through the plane at long last.

The first moments of stepping onboard Air New Zealand’s factory fresh 777-300ER were a sensory overload of sorts. Shiny chrome surfaces at every turn. Soft pink and purple mood light lining the entire cabin. Smooth white leather and plastic in the front of the plane contrasted with stark black cloth in the rear of the plane. Wallpapered lavatories. Vivid, responsive LCD touch screens. The excited hum of the plane’s very first crew, eagerly getting familiar with their new workplace.

But the most striking sensation was something I hope I’ll never forget.

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Imagine driving home from your favorite dealership in a brand new car and inhaling that satisfying scent of leather, plastic and surface coating as they all begin to settle in together. Now, picture that sweet fragrance scaled up by a factor of one hundred and imagine that your shiny brand new car has wings and is about to whisk you across the Pacific, serve you tasty food, and entertain you all the while. There’s really nothing quite like that elusive “new plane smell”.

After touring the cabin and sampling each of the seats, we were taken through a brief security check before re-boarding the plane to make our journey from Seattle to LAX to Auckland. I settled into my lush business premier seat; glass of champagne in hand and flashy Air New Zealand striped socks on my feet, and tried to take it all in.

For someone with an appreciation for aesthetics, the flight was like a mini treasure hunt to find the plane’s carefully crafted details. LED lights illuminate spaces that would normally be ignored. The most detailed IFE system that I’ve ever seen. Certain surfaces have even been coated with several layers of pearlescent finish so that they’re not too cool to the touch. It makes me wonder if a major U.S. airline has even thought twice about how their exposed metal surfaces will make my bare legs feel.

Even economy class doesn’t feel like economy class. The Skycouch (cuddle class) is a great option for families and couples, and a genius use of space that simply isn’t being utilized in any other economy cabin. And that’s the main takeaway; every type of passenger has been taken into consideration with the new design, and every passenger benefits from it.

But the experience is more than skin deep. The crew rest area on the 777-300ER is enormous; a happy, rested crew means better service. Premium economy is designed to promote a better social experience, and the beautiful open galleys are a great place for passengers to congregate and make small talk. And even though the new induction ovens on the plane weren’t working (and my egg breakfast was a little watery), I’ve been assured that the food served will be top notch.

All in all, my full appreciation for the amenities of the new 777 came when I boarded a now very much outdated 2005 Boeing 777-200 for my return flight to SFO. While business premiere is more or less the same on the older 777, premium economy and economy will certainly be somewhat of a disappointment for passengers that have come over on the new plane. An additional 777-300ER is expected to enter service between London and LAX in April, connecting two of the airline’s most popular long-haul routes.

My advice? Start planning a trip to New Zealand. It’s a stunningly beautiful country. It’s hospitable. It’s closer than you think; especially with a flight experience like this. Just make sure you’re booked both ways on the 777-300ER.

If you’re not planning on going overseas anytime soon, then you better hope that New Zealand has indeed caught the world’s attention yet again and we start seeing this dedication to detail spread to U.S. domestic carriers. And unless there really is a magical factory in the clouds, I don’t think we’ll be seeing that anytime soon.

Air New Zealand debuts entirely redesigned 777

This morning Gadling is on the ground at King County International Airport (Boeing Field) as Boeing officially delivers Air New Zealand’s newest pride & joy, the completely redesigned 777-300ER.

Air New Zealand has been hard at work for nearly 4 years in an effort to reinvent their long-haul experience. Working with multiple design firms and a series of focus groups, the airline developed two entirely new styles of seats for their Economy and Premium Economy classes in addition to an array of brand-new features never before seen on a 777.

Economy class on the new craft features a design dubbed as the ‘Skycouch‘ (also known as Cuddle Class), with footrests that transform three-across seats into a lie-flat area for couples or families traveling with children.

The new Premium Economy features two types of hard shell designs; inboard seats geared towards couples and those looking to socialize, and outboard seats for individual passengers who prefer to have privacy. Every single seat on the plane has a standard power outlet, USB port, and an S-Video connector to display your personal media on the seat back’s touchscreen.

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The airplane’s galleys are equipped with induction ovens; which will hopefully change the age-old notion of “airplane food” by cooking up steak, burgers, pizza, and proper Kiwi breakfasts on-demand via Panasonic’s custom In Flight Entertainment system.

Air New Zealand has also created in-flight experiences such as a children’s story-time in the rear galley, and a social galley in the front of the plane that will host wine tasting sessions with an Inflight Concierge.

In a time when most carriers are cutting corners and looking for ways to nickel and dime the passenger, it’s incredibly refreshing to see such forward-thinking features in every class of the cabin. And it’s already paying off for Air New Zealand; more than 30 airlines have expressed interest in licensing the new seat designs after an 18 month period of exclusivity for ANZ.

Check back for updates and full impressions as Gadling joins the inaugural flight of ZK-OKM to LAX and on to Auckland!

Coach cabin revolution — Air New Zealand adds beds in economy

Innovation may have played a part in Air New Zealand’s eight-year quest for renewed profitability.

As Kathryn Gregory, director of marketing for the Americas region recently said, “We like to look at what the other airlines are doing in their marketing and then… don’t do that.”

If you’ve been keeping track of the Air New Zealand inflight safety demo and their recent matchmaking flights, it’s clear that they’re setting their own course while keeping the brand edgy and fresh.

But the company knows that it’s not all just marketing and promotions. Their inflight product needs to maintain the quality that recently earned them the coveted ATW Airline of the Year award.Air New Zealand currently offers a Premium Plus Economy seating that doesn’t stop at just a few more inches of legroom for the front part of the coach cabin. Dining options are also enhanced to mirror more of the business class meals on their long-haul service and it’s been very well received.

And two years ago, the airline added in-flight concierges who can assist everyone with their onward flight arrangements, itineraries they may wish to adjust at their destination, scheduling issues with weather disruption and managing their frequent flyer miles. This even includes passengers traveling in economy.

At a time when airlines strive to be just a smidgen better than their competition, it would seem Air New Zealand could rest easily with their comfortable lead over other airlines.

But Roger Poulton, vice president of the Americas for Air New Zealand, said that to stay ahead, it was important to forgo some of the standard Boeing options in aircraft seating and to spend the time and money needed to design their own product. They also realized that Economy and Economy Plus passengers shouldn’t be forsaken and that families flying together represented a large portion of their passengers.

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It took years, but the results not only put Air New Zealand in the front of the industry but also might just change how other long-haul airlines look at the coach cabin in the future. Knowing that if word got out about their plans they would lose part of their lead, they’ve secretly been working on a new layout that has finally been revealed to the public.

The coach seats have been completely re-designed by Recaro, including eleven rows of three seats on each side of the cabin dubbed “Skycouches” that are available for families and couples who want the ability to buy an entire row. Couples who buy the third seat will only play need to pay half the price for the third seat.

Interior seats will not be able to convert to a Skycouch.

While it’s still not possible to stretch your legs out straight without them extending into the aisle, the Skycouch design will likely be very popular for economy travelers and especially for families traveling together. Parents could purchase two seats in the center of the cabin, and then a row of three across from them where the kids can lay out and sleep.

Internally at Air New Zealand, they’ve referred to the Skycouch seats as “Spoon Seats” since the design lends itself well to that sleeping position for couples.

To convert the seat, a button in the armrest allows you to pop up the modified footrest. It’s then necessary to snap the rest into place, making for a solid bed when all three are in place. The design is stressed for three hundred pounds, and it has a rather solid feel. The seat cushions align perfectly with each other, providing for a very smooth surface to stretch out on.

A foot net provides for more comfortable leg position options, presumably so your feet don’t impede the aisle.

Every economy seat will have an improved ‘sleep pillow’ headrest and PC power, USB and iPod connections.

A new feature has been added throughout the cabin, called Snacks on Demand, which allows passengers to order more food using the inflight entertainment screen in between the three course meal service.

After meals are served from the redesigned galley, ‘onboard events’ will be offered, including wine tasting, a destination seminar or kids story time using the 23″ mounted galley monitor. This area was modified to avoid looking like a kitchen and more like a lounge area where passengers can help themselves to snacks and drinks.

These changes apply to the new Boeing 777-300 aircraft that are being delivered starting in November of this year. Initially the Auckland to Los Angeles flight will see this aircraft and eventually this reconfiguration will make its way to other aircraft in the long-haul fleet.

Gadling had the opportunity to see the new seating configuration up close during the unveiling in Auckland at a building that had to be well hidden from the local press who have been relentlessly trying to learn details about the rumored seating changes. Recaro will be building the seats in Fort Worth, Texas.

If the prying media had only known that the building where the design work was being done was just two blocks from the Air New Zealand headquarters. The location was obvious on the morning of the event, when a huge sign that said “Hangar 9” and featured the Air New Zealand logo was unveiled and gave away the secret location.

Group General Manager, Ed Sims said that while the Skycouch experience is owned by Air New Zealand, other airlines that aren’t competing directly with the company would be able to license the design. He mentioned that when Boeing first viewed the work they’ve accomplished at Hangar 9, the airline manufacturer was convinced that this represented the future of air travel.

Initially, the company was working on a staggered seat design. They were pretty sure the offering would be a successful way to give people more room, but when they tested the mockup with focus groups, they found people uncomfortable with the lack of privacy from the people just behind or in front of them. There was a sense they needed to watch their belongings more and that people could see everything they were doing.

It wasn’t just Air New Zealand’s work in economy cabin that is going to change air travel. They have also redesigned their Premium Economy seats, creating a solution for passengers who want more privacy while at the same time satisfying those who prefer to sit together as a couple. Be sure to check out our video from the unveiling to see the Skycouch in action.

The pride in the new corporate culture at Air New Zealand is evident in every employee that we came across, from the flight attendants to management. They’re exceedingly proud of their country and many of the flight attendants told us they felt they had a responsibility at Air New Zealand to represent their country as well.

With this revolutionary design, it has become much easier for families to experience the Kiwi culture in person on what could be a restful twelve hour flight from Los Angeles or San Francisco to Auckland.

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