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.

Virgin America kicks off service to Cancun

Dying to get your Spring Break on in style? Then pack your sandals, sunscreen, sombrero and head on over to Virgin America’s website to grab some great fares or a chance to win a VIP getaway to Cancun, Mexico.

This morning, Virgin America is launching their service from LAX & SFO to the Mayan Riviera (aka Cancun) and Gadling is onboard to witness the festivities. Remember the Goo Goo Dolls? Apparently they’re still churning out the hits and have brought VH1 aboard to tape a mile-high episode of the Top 20 Video Countdown and show us how to travel like rock stars.

So if you have questions for the Goo Goo Dolls or song requests for the in-flight sing along that’s bound to break out, leave them in the comments below!

You can sign up to enter Virgin America’s VIP giveaway right here. If you don’t win, fares from Los Angeles and San Francisco to Cancun start from $139 each way and depart five days a week.

We’ll do our best to get in every shot of VH1’s special Top 20 Video Countdown episode, so tune in on January 29th at 9am EST to catch our ugly mugs.

Exclusive video: inside Virgin America’s DFW launch

If you’ve been reading Gadling in the last week, you’re probably aware that Virgin America launched their first mid-continent destination just one week ago in the heart of Texas. Now, see what it’s like to shake hands with Richard Branson and be on the inside of a Virgin America launch event – bulls, barbecues, bandanas & all.

Special thanks to the W Dallas-Victory, Winspear Opera House, & the entire Virgin America crew. For more photos and a closer look at the company’s future plans, check out the in-depth article here.

Inside Virgin America’s Orlando launch (w/ Photos)

I scanned the tarmac from my window seat. No gorgeous models holding Virgin America flags. No extravagant red carpet or cocktail service set out under the inviting Orlando sunshine. No R&B icons, rock stars, or daytime soap actors to pose for the dozens of cameras lined up at the jet bridge.

I thought we might have taxied to the wrong terminal until I saw the undeniable proof that we were in the right place; Richard Branson in a fanny pack, visor, and a colorful tropical shirt, enthusiastically guiding our Airbus A320 (dubbed California Dreamin’) into Gate 109.

The day’s events unfolded rather quickly and routinely, with Branson, CEO David Cush, & Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer all giving remarks about their excitement for the Virgin brand to be in Orange County. Guests took costumed snapshots in a theme-park-style photo booth while a lively balloon twister passed around a latex rendition of a Virgin America airplane. Within an hour or so the event was over, and the flight back to the West Coast was ready to board.

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Having attended two major launches & the premiere of ‘Fly Girls’ in the past year, I’d unwittingly become accustomed to a certain level of lavish presentation at Virgin America events. A connoisseur of Branson allure, if you will. Part of me almost expected flashing lights, loud music, & beautiful people sipping Veev on the rooftop of a hip hotel.

But the playful costumes, bright red fanny packs & family friendly theme all seemed to signify unchartered territory for Virgin America. A sensitive approach to a new and different market.
It would be hard to argue that Orlando has the same obvious sex appeal as the airline’s other 11 destinations. It’s a city that thrives on family-centric tourism & conference organizers looking to roll down their business socks; certainly not the typical tech-savvy creative class that is often drawn to the airline’s mood lighting, seatback touch-screens, and ubiquitous in-flight WiFi.

Nonetheless, Orlando attracted over 43.3 million domestic visitors in 2009 alone, and direct routes from the West Coast aren’t as plentiful as you might expect. My last flight on a low-cost carrier from Central Florida to the Bay Area was an eight hour zig-zag window-seat tour of the Midwest’s finest. A fragmented journey that quickly dulled the fond memories I had of golden Florida sunsets, a thrilling space shuttle launch, and epic mouse-eared magic.

Given the alternative, our direct four-and-a-half hour flight from Los Angeles to Orlando was a downright treat; one that I’m sure many tourists and Orlando residents will be receptive to.

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It’s been a big year for the young airline, and they’re poised for rapid expansion. They’ve announced service to five new destinations (three of which are international routes), reported their first profitable quarters since beginning operations in 2007, and placed an aircraft order that will more than double their current fleet.

Hype & spectacle or not, the launch into the Orlando market is just as significant as their entry into DFW later this year. It’s a shift in the type of destinations that the airline is targeting; high-traffic routes that are currently underserved by low-cost carriers.

Does that mean we’ll see Virgin America in Kansas City anytime soon? Probably not. They’ll have to continue pick and choose routes that are in demand and in need of better service. But with an in-flight experience that’s unmatched by any domestic carrier, I’ll be first in line to welcome such expansions; rooftop party or not.