Review: Air New Zealand – London (LHR) to LA (LAX)


Business Premier and Economy Skycouch™, Boeing 777-300 – September 2012

Air New Zealand Business Premier

This long-haul trip started with the personal touch. I was walked through customs and escorted to the Star Alliance Lounge, which has three distinct seating areas to choose from: a low-lit quiet area to the right of the entrance with comfortable chairs and low coffee tables; a central lounge with a giant TV, high padded stools and circular metal tables for perching; and a lighter, buzzier, chattier restaurant-type area beyond the kitchen buffet.

The kitchen buffet and self-service bar offers minestrone soup, a very large selection of freshly prepared sandwiches and some hot nibbles, mostly of the battered bhaji and spicy-chicken-pieces-on-a-stick variety. There are plenty of crisps and biscuits to accompany your English breakfast tea, herbal infusions or percolated coffee, and there’s a well-chilled selection of wines (including a sparkling white from NZ), beers, mixers and spirits.

The decor is inoffensively bland. There’s a dividing wall, plastered with slightly comic vinyl lettering with buzz words like “Recharge”, “Pillow” and “Emotions”, giving subliminal good vibes for the flight ahead. Service is attentive, yet unobtrusive – tables are cleared very quickly and efficiently.

The seating on the plane – or bedding, as it becomes – is in an ingeniously angled herringbone layout. Rounded leather side panels flank each personal space so no-one looks directly at their neighbours. The feeling of privacy is incredibly effective – you really feel cocooned, with your footrest and all the elements that make up your bed stashed and rolled up about you. Accessories include padded headphones, bed socks and La Prairie lip-balm and moisturiser to keep you moist and dewy in the air.

The food was exceptionally good: three of the most famous chefs in New Zealand (Peter Gordon, Rex Morgan and Geoff Scott) have created a Kiwi-focused menu complemented by excellent wines.

Eight pages of AVOD entertainment includes films old and new – American and British releases, plus some Australian and Asian titles – and TV shows. You can build your own playlist for the flight and, once your bed is made, enjoy the indulgence of meals and movies in bed. As soon as I began an attempt at transforming my leather armchair into a horizontal bed, one of the hostesses was at my side, effortlessly flipping and fluffing to make my nest ready. And what a nest! It has a proper cotton undersheet on the mattress and the tasteful, indigo blue madras quilt is incredibly soft. Plump pillows with starched cases make the bed complete. As flat beds in the air go, it’s as comfortable as they come.

The food was exceptionally good: three of the most famous chefs in New Zealand (Peter Gordon, Rex Morgan and Geoff Scott) have created a Kiwi-focused menu complemented by excellent wines. I was impressed with the quality – not just of the main meal (an outstanding grilled salmon with asparagus) but by that of the nibbles with Champagne that came before it: a ball of mozzarella, quince, juicy olives and smoked nuts.

The service is far more good-humoured than I’ve experienced on other airlines. It’s noticeably more relaxed and upbeat. Maybe it’s a natural New Zealand character trait, but there’s none of that smiling-but-not-with-the-eyes stuff that’s worthy of parody with a lot of cabin crew. This is an airline with a sense of humour, as anyone who has seen the Air New Zealand disco-styled safety announcement video, starring 1980s fitness guru Richard Simmons, will know. I particularly like the bathroom cartoon with the face of a pilot grinning through the window at you as you sit on the toilet.

I arrived in LAX feeling properly refreshed and rested, if a little puffy around the lids: every film I’d picked was a weepy, and it’s a well-known fact that the combination of altitude, cabin pressure and Champagne can make an in-flight movie so much more emotional than normal.

On the return journey I was shown to a reserved table in the Air New Zealand lounge, a space with a very pleasing midcentury modern feel to it. Windows run along two of the walls, so on a typical LA day you are bathed in golden Californian sunlight while you eat your crab salad and butternut squash soup.

There are low couches at one end of the space, arranged like a film screening room, all trained on an enormous television tuned to CNN. As you walk further there are high stools and a couple of rows of tables for those who want to flip open a laptop and catch up on work. The central buffet has a fresh selection of salads – from Caesar to potato – as well as breads, cheeses, crackers, soup and a few hot choices with rice. Running along the back wall, there’s a well-stocked bar. The whole space is slick, although there are some garish varnished barrels with chairs on either side which are definitely at odds with the overall design and would look more at home at a beach resort.

On my return journey from LAX to LHR I flew on an Economy Skycouch™ (note that trademark, people!). As the name suggests, this is a seat in the Economy cabin, and is being marketed towards families travelling with small children. The attendant furnished me with extra pillows and lovely quilts, which are a pleasing combination of cotton on one side and needlecord on the other.

Economy Skycouch™

While waiting for take-off I tried to get my head around the Economy Skycouch™ philosophy with the help of the laminated diagrams provided. The possibilities of body configurations they suggest are endless: adult seated with child lying down and other child cross legged; adult seated with infant on their lap secured with “cuddle belt” while another child is lying down and another adult is sitting up diagonally. You are provided with a bewildering array of possible straps: standard seatbelt, infant loop belt, adult child loop belt or the aforementioned “cuddle belt”. Basically, the footrests pull up halfway for a bit of a leg-lift, or the full way up to make a bed. But it’s very tight: two adults lying down looked cosy on the diagram, but being pretty skinny myself I still couldn’t imagine sharing the small space with even one other whole grown-up. It felt very luxurious having it all to myself, especially with the extra bedding I was given, but I’m not sure the idea has been quite thought through.

My tricolour pasta stuffed with cheese was absolutely fine, but my Sauvignon Blanc wasn’t chilled. I’d been spoilt on my outward journey and felt a little cheated on the return. But I did manage to sleep on my Skycouch. It’s slightly frustrating that you can’t angle the TV: to make the most of the legroom, I was smooshed into a corner, surrounded by quilts, but that meant I couldn’t quite see the middle screen effectively. The staff in Economy were just as upbeat as they had been in Business Premier.

On the strength of both of these products, and not having flown with them before, Air New Zealand is now my transatlantic airline of choice. I’ve flown Virgin Atlantic for years, believing they were the best, but I’ve been turned.

Pippa Brooks is co-owner of M. Goldstein Art, Antiques and Attire in London (