Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Feel like I'm flying, I'm dying to say / "Want you forever and easy"

Time to eat my words.

A few weeks back I posted a comment on Lance Wiggs’ blog.

Lance had written some very positive words about Air New Zealand in the post:

A selection of reasons why Air New Zealand won the Airline of the Year in the Air Transport World magazine awards. Most of these refer to posts made here over the past three years, and the overarching reason is simply that Air New Zealand is a very well run business.

They have kept their fares low, and use a very simple fare structure. That means reducing some food services, but the lollies remain and, it seems, always will.

They have steadily got the details right – from the economy seats, to the check-in and seat back entertainment. The business class seats still rate, for me, as the best around, offering so much more than the competition.

(much more at the link..very much worth a read, and mostly he’s very right)

I commented, a little snarkily:

I’m flying ANZ for the first time in 7 years, this next week, from HK to NZ and I’m rather keen to see how they match up. To be honest the last time I flew them (from NZ to Melbourne), I swore I’d not ever fly them again. The plane was over-crowded, dirty, the inflight entertainment system was almost non-existent and the service utterly shocking.

In the interim I’ve racked up hundreds of thousands of kms with all sorts of airlines..some great (Sing Air with their usb ports and laptop power on all seats, Qatar, Air France), many average, and some awful (Malaysian comes to mind straight off, but nothing matches Viva Macau).

I’m looking forward to being very pleasantly surprised.

And I was.

There is some story, albeit brief, to both my original comment and my eating of words. Read on if you care, or skip to the last line if you’d rather avoid the verbosity.

I spend a lot of time travelling. I both enjoy it and its a part of my various jobs. From 1995 through to 2002 I went to Australia on business about 40 times, on either Air New Zealand, and Qantas, and I found myself flying to Europe and the US about a dozen times over the same time. I like flying and I like getting there in a good state, both rested and in a good mood. I like to arrive in a town, check into wherever I’m supposed to be staying, and head out. Mostly the airline is the reason why that is or is not possible.

I was pretty happy with our national airline up to about 1999. They got me there in one piece, the service came with a smile, and onboard they had pretty adequate food, entertainment and cabins. Then, that year, it all started of go wrong. It was fairly clearly linked to the Ansett fiasco (and yes, the Australians do have reason to be grumpy, however defensive New Zealanders were) as the airline went to pieces. I last flew Air New Zealand to Melbourne in early 2002. The plane was, without more than a cursory sorry, very late leaving, it was crowded, the food was almost inedible and the toilets looked like they’d not been cleaned for god knows how long. And worse, the in-cabin crew were unsmiling and repeatedly refused to respond to the bell-calls coming from me and other frustrated passengers.

I got off after a return flight that was little better and swore I’d never fly my national airline again. I’m not a patriotic soul and won’t support something simply because we share an accent.

Jump forward seven years, and I’ve flown countless miles on countless airlines in the interim. Some as I said in the comment, were brilliant. Qatar do everything right (apart from Doha airport, that is. It’s a dog. As is their awful habit of wandering through departure lounges randomly weighting carry-on like some sort of 7kg fascists), and Air France too are hard to fault. Singapore Air is thoroughly predictable: when times are good they tend to be rude and offhand; when times are tough, they get a rocket from management and re-learn the art of the smile, only to lose it again as the bottom line begins to improve. However, they have, without question, the best in flight entertainment system bar none.

I’ve done the awful (all Indonesian Airlines, Viva Macau, who use duct tape to hold together their loos, and the always awful Malaysian who simply exude rudeness in a way that, unlike the uber-cheap Indo bucket carriers, who you can mostly excuse as the Jakarta dollybirds (excuse sexism: sorry) in the cabins are paid a pittance, have to deal with 150 people physically pushing them out of the way as soon as the plane hits the runway, and the overwhelmingly bad survival odds each time they take off, they have absolutely no excuse for) and the pleasantly functional (Air Asia, who are really very good).

We’d wanted to fly Thai from BKK to AKL this time but the day I went to book the flight the price had doubled.

So Brigid spent some time online and we worked out that for less than the new Thai price we could get an Air Asia ticket to Hong Kong and spend a couple of days there (which allowed for some business in both directions) before taking the leap back onto Air NZ.

The word was they’d improved.

I’m always wary of the word.

HK, though, was reliably wonderful aside from the hotel putting us next door to a 24 hour bus stop wherein we discovered that all buses in HK have squeaky brakes, which meant when we sat down on NZ080 we effectively hadn’t slept for two days.


We sat in our seats (63D & E if anyone cares) and asked the steward if they had eyepads as sleep was a necessity and usually highly unlikely on a full, as it was, 777. Of course, he said and returned with not only the afore requested pads but earplugs (these are both supplied as standard kit to every passenger on many airlines so no extra points for that aside from the big smile that went with it), but also with business class headsets (extra points earned) and the offer of a glass each of French champagne from the front of the plane (extra points being ladled on now). Yes.

He returned and said “here you go, Mr. Grigg”. Bemused, the woman in 63F asked if we’d just got married or something. We returned the bemusement.

After we took off another member of the cabin staff came past and stopped to ask us …just us … if all was fine. Uh, yes. Fine.

Would we like some more wine? Uh, yes? (no-one else was asked).

A few minutes later a woman called Ruth came to us (and I paraphrase, so I’m sorry Ruth ..my memory is not that good). I’m the crew manager. Is all ok? Yes. I bet you’re wondering why all the attention. Yes. Its because of a comment on a blog and a tweet. Uhh. We were contacted by three different people in the organisation and told you were about to fly with the airline and to look after you. Uhhh. We just want to say thank you for giving us another go and welcome back.


Of course it may’ve been strategically better not to say anything to us and just to ramp up the service more subtlely, but as a way of making a grumpy ex-customer feel welcome and more than a little special, it worked some wonders. We glowed and we settled rather comfortably into our quite comfortable seats, as we were bought our meals of choice before the rest of the cabin. So, yep, it worked.

And nothing I’m saying here of course has anything to do with that pampering.

Ok, it has a little to do with it.

But, the simple fact is that, as above, Lance was very right. Mostly.

But, to the important stuff.

Yes, I’ve come around.

The seats (most importantly) were as comfortable as any I’ve had anywhere in recent years with far more leg room than the ever tightening squeeze of Singapore Air or many others. The crew lacked the sternness of years past as still found on all American carriers. They smiled and seemed to mean it, unlike the plastic of the rulebook bound SingAir or the simple lack of anything resembling a smile on Qantas or Malaysian (where the staff have this unfortunate habit of talking about non-Malay passengers in negative terms in Bahasa Malay (uhh…I speak it)).

And there was no call to pray to Mecca as there is every half hour or so, as you crave a beer on the bland airline of Brunei as you fly into the even blander state of Brunei.

The food was rather good, the wine was predictably wonderful, the movies were just fine (I liked the one about Winston Churchill even if it was factually random in a very HBO way) and it was a very pleasant flight. Without reservation.

No, make that a really bloody good flight. It worked. I’m happily sold and, all things as they should be, will probably make the BKK-HK-NZ route the default route when re-nesting, using Air New Zealand. Is that humble pie enough? Any chance of an upgrade when we fly back to HK? How about a radio show?

Ok two more major points winners:

The way that the airline tells you its fine to watch the movie from the moment they shut the doors is a huge winner. None of this ridiculous no headphones until cruising height drivel. Seriously, it’s 2010 and we’ve paid for in-flight entertainment. Thank you. Points.

And the fact that they tell you you can turn your cellphone on when the wheels hit the tarmac. The whole danger from cellphones thing on aircraft has long since been disproved and indeed large parts of the planet seem to have no issue with them in flight, and, whilst the very last thing I want, especially in Asia where the so-called handphones are used at an obsessive level and most folks carry two or more Blackberries or HTCs which are both used at the same time without break, is the endless bleeping of incoming texts, or loud conversation, for 11 hours, a little reality injected helps. Points.

I do feel the need to take issue with Lance’s claim to the Air New Zealand website. It’s one place they get a C. Singapore Air, at the higher level, and Air Asia, at the budget level, do it much better as do many others. Having booked via the Air NZ Hong Kong Kong website, it was next to useless when I tried to get information, or look at the possibility of changing a ticket.

And the airpoints. I get them on my credit card and they’re essentially useless, expiring before you get the chance to use them for anything worthwhile. Air NZ’s loyalty points system seems at best half-baked, but to be fair that comes in a time when most airlines seem to be rather desperate to ramp them back (Malaysian’s Enrich site has effectively, and dishonestly, been offline for redemption purposes for a year or so, citing some vague short-term issue).

So, yeah, Air New Zealand are quite good.