MIAMI— New routes mean inaugural flight parties and Air New Zealand stepped up to the plate this week with the launch of service from its hub at Auckland to Houston, Texas. The new route is the longest in the company’s network and offers an opportunity for the carrier to show off what its CEO calls its “fired up, highly engaged” staff and “great Kiwi food and wine” in transporting passengers to and fro. Airways News was hosted in the carrier’s Premium Economy cabin on the Boeing 777-200ER for the trip, offering the opportunity to put the service and cabin through the paces.
The entire Air New Zealand operation is keen on the new route; during domestic flights earlier in the week adverts for the Houston service were spotted in the rotation on the overhead IFE systems. Similarly, the airport was adorned with posters celebrating the new service.
Travelers on the inaugural were treated to a special reception in the lounge (assuming they had access via premium cabin or elite status) with passed canapés and beverages, plus the opportunity to mingle with company executives, many of whom were also on the flight. This selection was arguably a downgrade from the impressive spread of food and drinks available, but it was offered without needing to walk around. Naturally, I chose to try both options for research.
There were no big speeches nor over-the-top events at the boarding gate though there were signs celebrating Texas culture and mini pecan pies given out to passengers prior to boarding.
Once on the aircraft it was clear that this would be a special flight. The “Kia Ora Y’all” theme for the trip was on the headrests and travelers in Premium Economy and Business received a special amenity kit to commemorate the event.
Shortly after the plane lifted off the runway at Auckland the party quickly resumed. Passengers were once again up mingling and enjoying the experience. Drink service was something of a challenge with everyone in the aisles but the crew made it work.
The US Ambassador to New Zealand was also on board, showing off his selfie skills with passengers throughout the plane.
Eventually the crowd was subdued and settled in for the meal service. Catering was upgraded for the inaugural flight, offering an extra choice for each of the meal courses; it was akin to Business Class rather than the typical Premium Economy fare (which is still a solid offering). I had the smoked salmon appetizer, beef short rib main (not my first choice, but good texture & sauce flavor) and the apple tart for dessert.
One interesting quirk on the catering cart: Havana Club Especial was the rum of choice for the flight in to Texas. Needless to say, I do not expect that it will be the same option for the return segment. Also, it is delicious with an apple tart.
Following the meal I settled in for a movie and some sleep. The IFE system is based on the Panasonic eX2 platform but Air New Zealand “customized the hell out of it” as it was incorporated into the fleet. The menus and operation are smooth and responsive, both from the handset control or the touch screen. The moving map (still my favorite channel) allows touch screen based pan and pinch-to-zoom with spectacular levels of detail. It is one of the best eX2 implementations I’ve had the opportunity to fly with.
The newer Premium Economy product on the 772 presents a downgrade from the 777-300ER in that the cabin layout goes from 2-2-2 to 2-4-2 meaning some passengers will be stuck in a middle seat. The loss of seat width and switch from the more plush arm chair-style layout has its drawbacks but also some positives. Legroom is significantly improved on the newer version as is recline.
There is also an integrated leg rest in all rows, a benefit many other carriers skip out on in their premium economy layouts. Padding, recline and comfort are all impressive, matching the service quality offered on board. And the true test of the product is the sleep which results. I was out for 7 of the 13 hours on the flight. That’s a big win.
The flight path brought us in over the Mexico/US border near Laredo and then up to land in Houston where the flight was welcomed by Kapa Haka dancers at the gate and in the arrivals area.
Air New Zealand’s CEO quipped a few times during the associated events that many in the USA are geography challenged and assume that New Zealand is further away than it really is. The flight is a significant one but the jetlag impact is relatively small; there is only a 5 hour difference between Auckland and Houston (though also a day difference, though that doesn’t impact jetlag). With the well timed flights that minimal difference is relatively easy to absorb, making the trip easier once on the ground as well.
As mentioned above, Air New Zealand paid for the flights; opinions are my own.