Air New Zealand Pacific Premier Economy

, posted: 25-Sep-2006 14:18

Air New Zealand has been on the "avoid" list for me for a while now, after a business class trip to Asia featuring a broken seat and generally poor service about two years ago. The decision to not go Air NZ if possible was compounded by their customer service department's response to the complaint which was basically "yeah, it sucked but we're working on a refit" (I still have the email).

However, it is hard to avoid Air NZ on some routes, as they're often the only carrier with direct flights to destinations like the US from New Zealand. The refit of their long-haul aircraft has been done, but even so when I was booked a Pacific Premium Economy fare to San Francisco, I wasn't sure what to expect. For long-haul, short-stay trips like that, business class means you arrive in a coherent state, which is kind of useful if you have to interview various important people who get annoyed if you fall asleep while talking to them.

Premium Economy cabins are not new: years ago I flew from Taipei to San Francisco with EVA Air which had a similar class; the fare was inbetween business and economy, and I felt it was worth it. You got a good seat with plenty of room and were able to sleep. You didn't get all the fancy food etc. of business class but I didn't miss that.

The trip started off well at Auckland International because PPE passengers can go through the business class check-in. This is much faster, but PPE doesn't include lounge access which is a shame - the Koru Club lounges I've been to in different parts of the world are very good, much better than for instance their Qantas counterparts.

To San Francisco, Air NZ flies new Boeing 777-200 planes, and the PPE class passengers sit just behind the business class ones, in a two-row section that's curtained off from the rest of the economy cabin after take-off.

My first impression was that PPE looks cramped: the seats are configured 3-3-3 aboard the 777-200. Sitting down, I noticed that while there's a good amount of legroom, the seats are narrow. The narrowness meant that you were literally rubbing shoulders with your fellow passengers even if you're an average size person like me at 185cm. If you've been in a Recaro racing seat, you'll recognise the feeling of being squashed.

Worse, the aisles are narrow too, so there's plenty of bumping going on when the friendly flight crew zoom along, working very efficiently and attentively (and, worryingly enough, I recognised several of them from past trips). It looks like the beancounters at Air NZ have added one seat too many in each row for the PPE class in the 777-200, unfortunately.

The arm rests on the narrow seats are fixed, so you can't change position much. This and the thin padding on the seat means you'll end up with a numb bum after a few hours. On the plus side, the recline is good and as mentioned earlier, legroom is adequate so it's a shame that Air NZ decided to sardine the passengers like this.

As it is now, it's hard to get to sleep on long flights and if the cabin is full, working with a laptop is hard because you end up annoying the passenger next to you, who also has a full view of your screen. This I felt defeats the purpose of PPE: people pay a premium to be able to sleep or work on long-haul flights after all.

The entertainment system however gets full marks. Good choice of films, TV programmes, music, and games, presented on a big screen. Sound is very good too, and goes some way towards taking the edge of the uncomfortable seat.

Food is standard economy fare, but with some business class trappings like wines. Air NZ has a very good selection of wines, incidentally.

Is the PPE value for money then? Well, it looks like it carries a two-thirds premium on normal economy fares, and works out about sixty per cent cheaper than business class on Air NZ. PPE is likely aimed at catching corporate drones who would normally go in economy and the Air Points upgraders. However, the narrow, uncomfortable seats spoil what could've been a good inbetween alternative, which is a pity, so you might as well suffer in economy - or try another airline if possible.

If you end up in PPE, the best seats aboard the 777-200 are in row 23, as you can get in and out of your seat without climbing over other passengers.

Update Four years later, 2010, I took return trip to Shanghai in Premium Economy. I haven't hardened up in the meanwhile and with a busy schedule with lots of deadline, boy was I glad to have PE with extra space and the ability to sleep a while on the longhaul flight. I had a window seat in a two-seat row, plenty of room and the seat itself was more comfortable than I four years ago. Food was really quite good, and I saw a bunch of movies that I wouldn't have other wise. Things have improved markedly over the years in other words, and PE is worth it over longer trips now.

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