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!

Air New Zealand thinks THIS is an economy seat? (with video)

Well, Premium Economy, at least. But we’ve sat in Business Class seats that weren’t this comfortable.

Apparently Air New Zealand has a larger proportion of leisure passengers than other international airlines, so they’ve focused more of their efforts on enhancing the Economy and Premium Economy cabins. We covered the upcoming changes to the Economy section, including the option for passengers to choose the new Skycouch layout when booking their trip, but the Premium Economy redesign may be an even bigger story. It’s surely going to cause other airlines to take a fresh look at their offerings.

Air New Zealand currently offers a Premium Economy cabin that offers a larger selection of meal options at a much higher quality, nearly approaching the level of service seen up front in their Business Premium cabin. It’s likely one reason they were awarded ATW’s Airline of the Year for 2010. But they don’t seem ready to give up the title for 2011.
Space Seats

With their new Premium Economy “Space Seats” which enter service in November of 2010, the airline has managed to match their seats to the enhanced meal service. The combination could even rival the business class sections of other airlines.

Premium Economy passengers can reserve a seat based on their requirements for privacy or if they’re traveling with a partner, they can choose a more social arrangement. They do this by installing two different types of seats in the Premium Economy class.

Inner Space

The center seats face outward at a 23 degree angle and are called “Inner Space.” The two armrests in the middle of these seats can be lowered to create nearly enough room for a third person to sit, which could be helpful for a family flying with an infant.

With the armrests up, two people could share a meal or play a game of cards on the center console, with room for at least one person’s legs to fit underneath, like a small table.

Outer Space

The “Outer Seats” also point at a 23 degree angle and face the windows. With the new, larger 787 windows that are coming-depicted in the mockup pictures-these seats will be perfect for those who enjoy looking out. It felt a little like sitting on the front porch in a chair while taking in the view.

Another improvement over the current Premium Economy is the ability to recline without impeding anyone else’s space. And when the person sitting at the window is ready to get up, there’s enough room for the passenger at the aisle to pivot their legs to allow access. The seat width is now three inches wider at 20 inches, but there’s no obstruction, such as a fixed armrest on either side of the seats, so it feels even wider.

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“Otto” Pilot

Since there are now foot rests built into the seats, a stuffed foot rest that Air New Zealand has coined “Otto” which is short for ottoman will be provided. Ed Sims, the project manager on this effort remarked, “We readily anticipate that these will get stolen in huge numbers.”

Just like the rest of the cabin, Premium Economy will feature snacks on demand which allows a passenger to order complimentary drinks or snacks in between meals via the in flight entertainment screen.

The IFE screen is a pull-out, 10.6″ screen that provides more content than the current 8.4″ system, such as an expanded range of kids shows, exclusive offerings and a viewers recommended section. Applications such as hourly updated weather will be featured on the new graphical user interface that was designed by Air New Zealand.

A USB port or iPod connector will allow passengers to view their own content they may have brought with them. This will also be offered in the standard Economy class as well. No word on device compatibility, but the iPod and iPhone are sure to be on the list.

While looking at the innovative seats for each cabin, I couldn’t help but wonder where I’d prefer to sit. I suspect it will come down to who I’m flying with. If I were traveling with just my wife, the center, or “Inner Space” seats in premium economy would be preferable.

If we brought along our two kids, I’d love to try the two standard Economy center seats for us while the kids could take up the outer Skycouch seats for sleeping.

And if someone else is paying for the trip, well, there’s just no other option than to give the Business Premier cabin a try. Because if they consider these seats to be just a step up from their regular Economy seats, then wait until you see what they’ve done with their Business Class seat. We’ll have a review for you next week.

Gadling was briefed on the Space Seat prototype Tuesday at the Hangar 9 facility in Auckland, New Zealand. See it for yourself:

The story behind Air New Zealand’s new seats (with video)

Typically when an airline makes an advancement in their seat technology, a press release is sent out along with a few pictures. This week, Air New Zealand has given us a behind the scenes look at what went into their latest product.

They started the process using four design firms and narrowed their options down to a handful of layouts.

It was fascinating to see the research that went into the effort and sneak a peak at some of the abandoned layouts at their “Hangar 9” facility in Auckland where the prototype work took place.

When Gadling heard mumblings of these game-changing designs, we dropped everything to see for ourselves if Air New Zealand could match the early hype generated by the rumors. We were certainly impressed, and judging from the response of the media that attended the event, it seems they’ve set a new standard in airline innovation.
There’s a chance that other airlines who ordered the 787 have come up with similarly innovative designs that we just haven’t seen yet. But because Air New Zealand ordered 777-300s and 787s at the same time, we’re now seeing a tip of their hand as the 777s are approaching their November in-service date.

CEO Rob Fyfe and Project Manager Ed Sims briefed the crowds on Tuesdays event in Auckland, and demonstrated what makes the Skycouch economy seats so remarkable, and also showed us one of the designs that was rejected after nearly making the cut.

To see our more about the Skycoach seats, check out the coverage we did on Monday.

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