A Guide to Flying Premium Economy with Air New Zealand
My wide, leather seat was equipped with a fully adjustable winged head rest offering excellent support, along with a near full-sized pillow, a large bottle of Waiwera artisan water and a colourful amenity pouch. A quick glance inside revealed eyeshades, socks, Ashley & Co moisturising cream, a dental kit and a pen.
As I made myself comfortable, our host Ash introduced herself.
"Myself and Karen will be taking care of you today, Mr Murray," she told me, before handing me a menu. It was an indication of the kind of personal service I'd receive during the entire flight – attentive and quite authentic, coming as it does with a healthy dash of personality that Air New Zealand crew have rightly become famous for.
New Zealand itself has become equally renowned for its varied and awe-inspiring scenery and, as I looked around the dedicated cabin, I noticed there were different local vistas decorating each of the seat-back screens – about the size of a large iPad – adorned with the traditional Maori greeting ‘Kia ora’.
The comfortable, noise-reducing headphones were perfect for beginning the entertainment as soon as I took my seat. The options are vast, so I recommend taking the time to select your film before you're interrupted by the safety video, as, somewhat unusually, you'll actually want to watch this too. Air New Zealand has also become well known for its clever take on this normally dry format, whether it features the All Blacks, characters from Lord of the Rings or, like this latest one, one or two celebrities, including Rachel Hunter, who are willingly prepared to be upstaged by the real star – a visual showcase of the best of what the Northland has to offer.
As we started to level off, I weighed up a choice of three main courses for dinner. Ash returned with a tray of orange juice or New Zealand sparkling wine – no contest, that one – before I had the chance to fully recline my seat, raise my leg support and extend the footrest.
I’m not sure I’ve ever understood seat pitch measurements, but there was what looked like a clear foot between my knees and the seat in front. I couldn’t actually reach the screen to select my movie without moving well forward in my seat, hence the handy remote control in the arm rest. When my neighbour got up to use the facilities, my table was still unfolded, but they were able to access the aisle without disturbing me.
Seemingly designed with couples in mind, the seat configuration aboard this Boeing 777-300W is 2-4-2, which also means three quarters of guests in the cabin had either a window or aisle seat, while the rest were just one seat away from answering that call of nature.
On that subject, it would be remiss not to mention the surprisingly spacious loos with an equally surprising touch of design flair and another healthy dose of that Kiwi personality. I'd never seen wallpaper in an onboard water closet before, but this one featured a stylish black and white image of a bookcase full of witty titles like “The Importance of Aiming” and “Designing for Small Spaces”. I’m no Millennial, but "Captain's Log" actually made me laugh out loud.
After returning to my seat I settled in for my meal and, out of a habit born from knowing airline etiquette dictates that the back of your seat shouldn't be wedged in someone else's starter, I returned my chair to its take-off position. But there's really no need here, and you won’t be disturbed if the passenger in front of you prefers to be a little more relaxed while they dine.
As I enjoyed dinner, it struck me that Air New Zealand has got so much right with this Premium Economy offering that I found it hard not to draw positive comparisons with loftier cabins on other airlines.
I've been lucky enough to fly First Class on one or two occasions, but the beef cheeks I was served in this Premium Economy cabin – with chipped parsnip mash, green beans and celery leaf salsa verde – were melt-in-the-mouth delicious and eclipsed any cut of steak I've had in the air to date.
As in the Economy cabin, you’ll find Air New Zealand are quite liberal with their home country's wine. Having already been offered a glass with dinner, Ash and Karen circulated several more times with two choices of both red and white. Should you order a spirit expect a generous free pour, not a miniature.
For dessert, the chocolate mousse had a thickness that retained the spoon. When it finally yielded I can confirm it was worth the wait, and the cherry compote cut the smooth richness perfectly.
Finally, while it often comes cold or stewed at altitude, to my delight, properly hot tea was served in a proper, full-sized mug - all the food and drink comes in porcelain dishes and actual glasses, in fact, along with proper napkins.
This is a terribly English rant, I realise, but tea is something that is so easy to get wrong, but with a little care, so easy to get right. For me, this is yet another welcome example of the Air New Zealand cabin crew's attention to detail. And that's without even mentioning the accompanying Whittaker's chocolate.
I re-reclined my seat and raised the leg support, but this time left the footrest folded away. I'd managed to nab an extra pillow and place this beneath my knees instead. Immediately I felt completely cradled, and fell asleep involuntarily several times before giving up on movie number two. I set the screen to the "please do not disturb" message and plugged my phone in to recharge at the same time.
In the morning, the pleasant surprises continued when I woke naturally in time for breakfast, which came in individual courses - courses! For breakfast! Fresh fruit to begin was followed by muesli, while the croissants were served hot with jam. “From the stove”, as the menu said, I chose the scrambled eggs over the sweet hotcakes. They arrived still creamy and gave way easily into tasty individual chunks, unlike the solid egg slabs I've been served previously, even in some of the best hotels.
In the drive for cost cutting, many budget airlines are stripping away what once was commonplace in Economy – from nice-to-haves like amenity kits to more fundamental things like free food and drink – and this is making that decision to upgrade to Premium more and more compelling.
More than anything, the one thing I think I miss the most are the boiled sweets that they often used to give out before landing, in what now seems like a bygone age. But on this particular flight, as we started our descent into San Francisco, Ash was back from the past with a basket of them. In fairness, Air New Zealand, now celebrating its 77th year of award-winning service, has never stopped offering these sweets to every passenger onboard all their international and domestic services. On a shorter flight this trip, two children looked pleased as punch at having each been put in charge of a sweet basket. Because, you know, whatever your age, sometimes it’s the little things that matter. And with Air New Zealand, particularly in its Premium Economy cabin, the little things really do add up to a whole lot more.
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