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.

Inside Air New Zealand’s Matchmaking Flight

When I first heard about Air New Zealand offering a Matchmaking Flight, I was amused. It sounded like a cute promotion from the quirky national airline of a pretty quirky country. And when the invitation came to check out their matchmaking site and cover the flight from on board the plane, I was more cautiously optimistic than downright excited. I mean, planes are meant for transport not entertainment. I sleep on flights. I hate talking to my neighbors. I had fears of being awake for the full 13 hours while desperate singles chatted idly about their hobbies and desire to have children before turning 40. The thought of observing dozens of blind dates crash and burn while trying not to think of crashing and burning had me fearing the worst.

But, I put those fears aside and soothed myself with thoughts of the lush countryside that I would enjoy once we got to Auckland and ventured further into New Zealand. So, on October 13, I flew to LAX and checked in for ANZ Flight 5: The Matchmaking Flight. Was it a worthy promotion? I was going to find out for myself.

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Before even boarding the flight, passengers were invited to attend a party at the gate. Well, not all passengers. Only the 100 who were part of the promotion. The remaining passengers of ANZ Flight 5 waited at the main gate like regular travels. Representatives from the airline assured me that all of the passengers on the flight were called in advance and notified of the events that would be taking place on the flight to avoid any confusion and anger. Meanwhile, Matchmaking Flight attendees sipped specialty cocktails made from New Zealand vodka, enjoyed some speed dating (as much as speed dating can be enjoyed) and mingled. Many had “met” online using the airline’s Matchmaking Flight website, so putting faces with names filled the room with enthusiasm.

Perhaps the highlight of the pre-flight festivities was the performance by the ANZ flight crew. Ever seen your flight attendants and pilots dance to Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” 20 minutes before boarding your flight? I have. It’s simultaneously hysterical and terrifying. I’m all for airlines having personality, but I was pleased to see the pilot flubbing his dance steps as if he’d skipped some rehearsals. I’d prefer his time be spent checking weather patterns and keeping himself well-rested.

When it came time to board, there was a palpable sense of nervous energy. People seemed genuinely excited, but also wary of what a 13 hour flight with slightly intoxicated travelers with an invitation to be social would entail.

The flight, however, was much better than I anticipated. Rather than hit passengers over the head with the promotion, the level of participation and engagement was left up to each individual. Gift bags were waiting on every seat and included useful products like lip balm and lotions, as well as cheeky matchmaking treats and conversation starters, such as body oil and woman’s panties. It was a safe environment for the airline to push the envelope a bit, as every participating passenger had agreed to the joke before stepping foot on the plane.

The flight’s concierge, Jaheb Barnett, used a portable PA system to address the Matchmaking Flight attendees rather than the plane’s built-in system. This saved the regular passengers from having their flight interrupted constantly. The airline did a mostly admirable job of separating the Matchmaking Flight population from the other passengers. A few travelers who were not looking for love were seated nearby and they grumbled a bit, but no one appeared too annoyed by the promotion.

Several of the passengers told me that they had booked the flight simply for the discounted airfare to New Zealand. Tiffani Hoffman from Minnesota said, “It was a cheap flight and I have a friend in New Zealand that I wanted to visit.” But it was also the second time Tiffani had ever flown in a plane (the first time was when she flew from Minneapolis to Los Angeles earlier that day), so the deal must have really motivated her.

LeeAnn and Ben Ziegler were heading to New Zealand on their honeymoon. Why take a matchmaking flight after getting married? “We saved tons of money on our honeymoon, so the fare definitely was the decision-maker.” Seeing as they were surrounded by singles, I asked the newlyweds what advice they would give to all those looking for love at 35,000 feet. LeAnn said, “Be authentic and be yourself.” And lest you think they were judgmental of 100 people seeking to meet their soulmates on an airplane, LeeAnn and Ben met online.

Corinne Theile and Steve Borgford were two of the travelers who were hoping to find their matches. Steve admitted, “The odds are against me,” but added, “My friends have been supportive and if all I get is some practice talking to women and a good vacation, then the trip was a success.” Corinne, from Los Angeles, had tried internet and speed dating, and thought that the Matchmaking Flight was “a cool idea.” Her friends thought she was crazy, but she said, “you have to be adventurous and get out there.”

After landing in Auckland early on October 15, passengers had time to get their bearings, explore the city and get over any jetlag before attending the Matchmaking Ball the next day. The event was attended by the 100 Matchmaking Flight passengers, as well as 150 Kiwis eager to mix and mingle with some single Yanks. After spending 13 hours cooped up in a plane, I was eager to shower and not see the same faces for the next 36 hours. Besides, with free wine and champagne at the party, I was sure to get my fill of singles being single when the time came.

The party was held at The Wharf, a posh Auckland event space located on Waitemata Harbour. I appreciated seeing everyone cleaned up and smelling more like deodorant and less like recycled air and quiet desperation. The festivities included an impromptu round of The Dating Game, plenty of dance music and the aforementioned alcohol. Things started off slowly as people chatted and loosened up. Airline promotion or not, going to a singles mixer can be a tad awkward and that was certainly visible as I creepily watched from the sidelines.

Slowly but surely, though, people got comfortable (read: drunk) and the dance floor became a hotbed of flirting, twirling and, eventually, making out. By the end of the night, adults from opposite sides of the world resembled teenagers at a make-out party. Whether it was love or simply lust, matches were being made all around me.

So, was it a successful promotion? Before the flight, Air New Zealand’s Marketing Director for the Americas, Kathryn Gregory, had told me that her airline strives “to make our guests’ holidays start as soon as they step on the plane.” By that standard, the Matchmaking Flight exceeded Air New Zealand’s expectations. And what about those people looking for love? I met two Kiwis who were rumored to be a couple by the end of my week there. And Corinne, our adventurous dater from LA, had gone on more than a few dates with one of the flight’s pilots. As for me, I was able to sleep on the plane and never really felt all that uncomfortable around the singles. But I didn’t enjoy myself as much this gentleman.

Mike Barish attended Air New Zealand’s Matchmaking Flight with a media credential. No editorial content was guaranteed and he was free to write about his observations.

Qantas CEO Hints at Future Merger

Qantas CEO Geoff Dixon might be stepping down from his post after eight hectic years, but he still has something to say about the future of the famous Australian airline. Though he did not announce a merger, Dixon stated that a future merger is “inevitable.”

“For Qantas, consolidation is highly desirable. It is in our interests to be at the leading edge of efforts to build a global airline grouping.”

However, he did not give any further details, leading some to believe that he is just letting off steam after running up against stiff government restrictions concerning the percentage of foreign ownership allowed of Australian airlines. Attempts to merge with Singapore Airlines and Air New Zealand were less than successful.

Dixon will leave Qantas in relatively stable condition, all things considered. He will hand a profitable company over to Alan Joyce, the current CEO of Jetstar (the low-cost-carrier affiliated with Qantas). The airline claims to have saved money because it operates more fuel-efficient aircraft.

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Boeing and Air New Zealand to Test 2nd Generation Biofuel

Boeing has announced that it will carry out tests of a new “2nd generation” biofuel using one of its 747s. The plane,owned by Air New Zealand will take off on December 13th. Because it is the first live test, only one of the plane’s 4 engines will use the fuel, made from the nuts of jatropha plants (pictured).

Jatropha is an inedible plant that is indigenous to Central America and the Caribbean, but grows in most of the warm weather regions of the world. Unlike earlier biofuel sources, which were grown on arable farmland, jatropha grows well in areas that cannot be used for agriculture. Its use, therefore, will not affect food prices or food supply.

The fuel is made by extracting the oil from the nuts of the plant. UOP, whose parent company is Honeywell, is responsible for producing the jatropha-fuel. According to Boeing, UOP’s production was “the world’s first large-scale production run of a commercially viable and sustainable biofuel for aviation use.” The biofuel will be mixed with regular jet fuel for the December 13th test.

[Via The Register]