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Air New Zealand
by Roger Thiedeman

Flight: NZ154

Sector: Melbourne, Australia (IATA: MEL/ICAO: YMML) to Wellington, New Zealand (WLG/NZWN)
Aircraft: Airbus A320-200

                                        PHOTO: ROB FINLAYSON

Check-in

Proffering our e-ticket some three hours in advance of the advertised departure time (when travelling we like to emulate the proverbial early bird), check-in at Melbourne-Tullamarine International was hassle-free. Our seats were allocated three days earlier when I phoned the airline to reconfirm our reservations, as required. The cheerful check-in agent informed us that the incoming flight from New Zealand would be arriving—and departing Melbourne—approximately 25 minutes late because of westerly headwinds across the Tasman Sea; but she also assured us that the delay would be made up when the headwinds became tailwinds for our eastbound flight.

Departure processing by immigration, and security screening, were also accomplished with the thoroughness and courtesy for which MEL is renowned.

Boarding/Cabin

Later, seated at Gate 4, we observed our A320 (ZK-OJE), inbound from Christchurch, taxi in and dock at 1742, 22 minutes behind schedule. Boarding, via an air bridge, began at 1823—with warm, welcoming smiles from the four typically friendly ‘Kiwi’ cabin crewmembers. The two-year-old A320’s interior still looked new and clean. Seat pitch was adequate—thankfully not quite to low‑cost carrier (LCC) standards—while the seats themselves had stylish and comfy leather-style upholstery.

At 1841 (26 minutes after STD), with nearly all its 138 coach seats occupied, the A320 pushed back. Exactly ten minutes afterward, brakes were released and power applied for the takeoff roll along Runway 27.

After taking off to the west, a left turn was initiated directly above Calder Thunderdome, a motor sporting complex. As the Airbus rolled out of the turn to set an eastward course, the city of Melbourne and its environs lay sprawled below, bathed in late afternoon sunlight. Clearly visible were the docks, downtown area, and most of the venues that have bestowed on Melbourne its justifiable title of ‘Australia’s sporting capital’. Among the latter are: Flemington Racecourse (home of the Melbourne Cup, the ‘race that stops a nation’ each November); Melbourne Cricket Ground (Australia’s cricketing and ‘Aussie Rules’ football ‘mecca’, and main venue for this year’s Commonwealth Games); the Rod Laver and Vodafone Arenas (which host the annual Australian Open tennis Grand Slam tournament, apart from numerous other sports and entertainment events); and Albert Park Lake, whose usually tranquil surrounds are transformed into a Formula One Grand Prix motor racing circuit every March.

Soon, Melbourne’s outer southeastern suburbs were slipping by to the left, with Port Phillip and Westernport Bays on the right, before the A320 headed out over Bass Strait, the body of water that separates mainland Australia from the island state of Tasmania. Shortly afterward, the Airbus began its crossing of the Tasman Sea.

Arrival cards for New Zealand were distributed almost as soon as seat belt signs were turned off—earning a hearty tick of approval from this editor. There was the usual selection of audio programs, with a feature movie—and safety demonstration—viewable on small drop-down video screens located at intervals throughout the cabin. But the monitors’ picture quality seemed to be only average from some angles and distances—at least to this editor’s eyes.

PHOTO: ROGER THIEDEMAN

In-Flight

Meal service began about an hour after departure. Labeled ‘Inflight Cafe’ in marketing-speak, the fancy title hinted that dinner on this international flight would be little more than a light snack—and so it proved. Admittedly, there was a choice of two main dishes—steak-and-cheese pie or Chicken Mediterranean (we chose the latter)—but the overall presentation was basic (I hesitate to use the word ‘cheap’). Served in an open cardboard box—no proper meal trays here—the paltry piece of poultry was almost entirely disguised by an unidentifiable coating not unlike hash browned potatoes. At least the chicken tasted better than it looked, as did the potato salad with garlic dressing. Completing the cardboard box ‘ensemble’ were a sealed plastic cup of ‘natural mineral water’, a cup of vanilla ice cream, plastic cutlery, and basic condiments including sugar.

The usual array of fizzy soft drinks, fruit juices, water, and adult beverages was served as accompaniment to Inflight Cafe, with offerings of tea and coffee later on. I selected—and thoroughly enjoyed—a Hardy’s Nottage Hill cabernet shiraz, an Australian 2004 vintage.

Disappointingly, passengers who had their seat backs in reclined position at meal time were not asked by the flight attendants to ‘un-recline’ them so that people directly behind could partake of their snack in relative ease and comfort. This highlighted an apparent inconsistency in Air New Zealand’s cabin service standards, because on the return flight from Auckland (NZ 125) nine days later, cabin crewmembers meticulously ensured that seat backs were returned to the upright position during meal service—a practice enforced by several leading international airlines.

Approximately half an hour before landing at Wellington water was served, followed by candies just before flaps and wheels were lowered. Throughout the long over-water approach to WLG’s Runway 34, the A320 was jostled by moderate turbulence—after all, we were about to land in New Zealand’s famed ‘Windy City’, also the national capital. Meanwhile, a crescent moon rode shotgun just above our left winglet.

Touchdown was at 2338lt, and blocks-on at Gate 23 at 2345—3hr 4min since leaving MEL, and exactly on schedule, with all lost time recovered to the minute as promised. Impressive! This largely fuss‑free travel experience was rounded off with careful yet cordial immigration andcustoms processing, setting the tone for a pleasant holiday in the ‘Land of the Long White Cloud’.

Overall impressions

Cabin service was on par with most good airlines’ coach products—essentially efficient, helpful, and courteous, but not outstanding. Meal presentation suggests that stringent cost-cutting measures are in force at Air New Zealand.

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