Oct 112014
 
Welcome to Air New Zealand Premium economy

Comfort is not the word that comes to mind when travelling economy across the Pacific so when a chance to upgrade a fourteen hour flight between Auckland and Los Angeles to Premium Economy comes along it’s worth grabbing.

Among Air New Zealands plethora of flight classes the airline offers a premium economy Spaceseat service on its long haul Boeing 777-300 services.

With extra space and legroom along with an improved food menu, the service is a step up from basic economy but is it a suitable substitute for the more expensive business class?

At first view, the premium economy seats are certainly more spacious than United’s business class with the cabin being six abreast in a 777-300 as opposed to eight on the US carrier’s service.

Air New Zealand Premium Economy bench arrangement

The seats themselves have a strange positive feedback system where it’s necessary to push the seat into the position you want. The recline on the seat also isn’t as far as expected being not a great deal more than standard economy.

Air New Zealand Premium economy cabin

Although the recline isn’t great, the leg room and space for working is excellent with no problems such as the passenger in front of you reclining into your face or mangling your laptop.

Air New Zealand Premium Economy seat with setup

One major advantage Air New Zealand’s premium economy has over United’s business is the ample elbow room; the wide cushion beside your seat gives plenty of space for placing drinks, books and other inflight paraphernalia, something really useful on a 14 hour flight.

Air New Zealand Premium Economy leg room and bean bag

Stretching out however isn’t so easy, the seats are nowhere near lie flat with additional leg room provided in small well in the back of the seat in front. Within that well a small bean bag is provided to give extra leg elevation.

Air New Zealand premium economy storage and water bottle

Alongside the seat is some more storage space where at the start of the flight the airline provides a bottle of water. Be careful putting anything valuable on this ledge as it can fall down behind the seat, in my case I lost a set of eyeshares although the basic amenities kit provided another pair.

Air New Zealand Premium Economy dinner

The food provided is a big step up from standard economy with the serves being more generous with wider choices. The smaller cabin also means faster service and Air New Zealand have avoided United’s mistake by providing sufficient toilets for the Premium Economy section.

Once the food is packed away the real test of the flight is how well one can sleep, particularly on a 14 hour flight that crosses the International Date Line (your arrival time in Los Angeles is earlier than the time you departed).

Air New Zealand premium economy legroom

Unfortunately the rest isn’t that great, the poor recline still makes it hard to sleep and the bean bag isn’t enough to give your feet much elevation. While it’s better than normal economy, you aren’t going to get a great night’s sleep.

The night’s sleep is where business class wins out; the ability to lie flat gives you the opportunity for a decent slumber while Premium Economy will still leave you sore and tired.

On balance, Air New Zealand’s Premium Economy is a good upgrade if want to pay extra for a bit more comfort or, like this writer, have points to squander.

If you’re travelling for work and the need for a good sleep before arrival is important, then premium economy won’t replace the benefits of a lie flat seat in business.

Paul travelled to Los Angeles as a guest of Salesforce, the upgrade was part of a points redemption.

Air New Zealand Boeing 777-300

Oct 022014
 
SFO+signage-medium-san-francisco-united

Transpacific business class on United Airlines is a curious service with the crowded cabins being a step down from the carrier’s own domestic service.

United Airlines surprised me by bouncing me onto a Qantas flight on my previous attempt to fly business class with them across the Pacific however on the return flight on UA863 between San Francisco and Sydney there were no such surprises.

On boarding the 777 the difference between the airline’s domestic business class and its trans Pacific routes is immediately apparent in the crowded eight abreast cabin which compares poorly to the four abreast on United’s domestic 757 services and is a world away from the six abreast on the Qantas A380 services.

It is however a lot better than the ten abreast at the back of the plane in economy and while the seats are cramped they are lie flat with all the standard fittings expected in a business class seat.

united-airlines-business-class-transpacific

Once settled in the seat and underway the cabin crew are spectacularly friendly and helpful despite being overworked in the crowded cabin. The gin and tonics are particularly strong and its worthwhile being cautious of having too many of them.

united-airlines-business-class-gin-and-tonic

Aside from lethally strong drinks, the business class food on the flight is good with a decently cooked steak as part of a four course meal including an appetizer, cheese plate and ice cream sundae. For an inflight meal, the mashed potato and baby carrots were surprisingly good.

united-airlines-business-class-dinner

For the regulars on the flight the most important part of the trip is their ice cream sundaes. Apparently these mean a lot to United’s loyal customers and are a nice touch with the flight attendants clearly enjoying the ceremony. If you’re nice to the cabin crew, you can expect extra nuts.

united-airlines-business-class-dessert

After the meals, one of the downsides of United’s crowded business class becomes apparent — the lack of restrooms which results in lines just as long as those in economy on other airlines.

Once you do make it into the toilets, the United Airlines’ amenity bag has a good range of accessories to make the flight more comfortable including travel socks, earplugs and skin moisturizer. It’s probably good United don’t offer a set of business class pyjamas like Qantas as nobody would ever get into the restrooms.

united-airlines-business-class-amenities-bag

Despite being cramped the lie flat beds are fine for a sleep during the 17 hour flight. During the period the lights are dimmed, the cabin crew do tend to vanish so staying hydrated involves making a trip to the galley where along with drinks a parked serving trolley offers self service fruit and snacks.

A few hours out of an on time arrival in Sydney sees standard American breakfasts being offered. These aren’t bad but aren’t good for anyone’s diet and no-one will be accusing the United States of producing the world’s best croissants any time soon.

united-airlines-business-class-breakfastOverall, United’s transpacific business class service is a curious beast. While the crew are friendly and the food adequate, it’s clear the product lags behind its own domestic service and other airline’s international offerings.

United’s lagging behind the competition is shown in their ticket prices with their business class fare from Sydney to New York being a third of Virgin’s and half of Qantas on the same routing. The market is voting with its wallet despite United having a monopoly on the Australia to San Francisco routes.

For those paying for fares out of their own pockets, it may well be worth considering other airline’s premium economy offerings although for connecting flights to other parts of North America, United offers more options than competing carriers.

Should you be one of the few where your employer still pays for long haul business class fares, then United is probably the least comfortable option although your office financial controller will be happier with the prices.

Paul flew United Business Class between Sydney and New York courtesy of Blackberry

Aug 262014
 
NZ8-air-new-zealand-economy-cabin-747

Air New Zealand, like most airlines, is about to end the era of the 747 with the airline’s last jumbo plying the transpacific route between Auckland and San Francisco until early next month.

With three weeks to go before decommissioning and being replaced by a 777-200ER, The City of Christchurch is showing its age. Although not quite as badly as United’s jumbos that were withdrawn late last year.

Catching the old bird in its final days was a touching note of nostalgia for the end of the jumbo jet age but also showed why its time for these older jets to be retired.

The first problem was a delay for ‘operational reasons’ – we never learned what those operational reasons were for the two and a half hour delay although we learned from the crew later that the flight came “within a whisker” of being cancelled – and NZ8 left shortly after 10pm.

On boarding, the age of the plane becomes quickly apparent with the interior fittings looking very much their age.

NZ8-air-new-zealand-747-leg-room

The economy seats themselves though are substantially wider, more comfortable with greater leg room than the connecting Dreamliner service from Sydney. This is good thing on a fourteen hour flight.

NZ8-air-new-zealand-IFE-crash-reboot

While the seats were travelling well with age, the IFE system wasn’t. For the first hour there was no sound until the cabin crew rebooted the system, even then both the video and music channels were often distorted and choppy.

NZ8-air-new-zealand-dinner

Once the in flight entertainment system was fixed, it was onto the meals. Dinner was a choice of ham pasta, a mumbled chicken dish and a beef curry. Everyone in our row took the beef which was a touch greasy but fine when mixed with the rice. The ice cream was a nice touch but serving it with the hot dish meant you had to each quickly.

In between the meal services, the crew were friendly and efficient and somewhat wistful about the last days of the 747; most of them had spent their careers on these planes.

NZ8-air-new-zealand-breakfast

Breakfast was the choice of a cold cereal or hot omelette, baked beans and chicken sausage both of which were accompanied with fruit salad, roll and yoghurt. The hot breakfast was a standard but not unpleasant economy class airline breakfast.

Eventually the plane arrived in San Francisco two hours late, and then I found a prominent analyst had pinched the car hired by VM Ware to take us to the hotel. But that’s another story.

Many people will be sad to see the last of the 747, but Air New Zealand’s last jumbo shows they have reached the end of their days.

Paul travelled on Air New Zealand as a guest of VM Wear to attend the VM World conference in New Zealand.

Aug 232014
 
Qantas-business-class-seat

My heart sank on checking in for my United Airlines flight to Los Angeles at Sydney Airport. “Sorry sir, there’s a problem with the flight,” said the impeccably polite United Airlines check in clerk.

His next comment made my day. “We’ll be transferring you to the Qantas flight,” and so a few minutes later I had a Qantas boarding pass for QF11 for the 14 hour flight to Los Angeles and access to their Business Class lounge at Sydney International.

Qantas-business-class-sydney-lounge

Time only permitted a short visit to the Business class lounge which is spacious with a generous range of self service drinks but a somewhat limited range of food. What is available is pleasant and adequate and the lounge is a good place to get some last minute work done or relax with the interesting view of the airport.

Aboard the plane

On the plane there’s a big difference between the two airlines’ business classes; Qantas Flight QF11 between Sydney and Los Angeles is an Airbus A380 with six abreast seats in business class while United’s equivalent is a Boeing 777 with eight cramped seats.

Qantas-business-class-seatskybed ready for take off

Reflecting this, Qantas’ Business Class lie flat Skybeds are generously wide with a personal lights, privacy screens and personal video. International power sockets are easily accessible at the front of the arm rests.

The plane is a touch grubby and worn which is surprising for such a modern plane. The service itself is very friendly and polite with Business Class passengers welcomed with a choice of soft drinks or sparkling wine.

Flight amenities include a set of simple cotton pyjamas along with blankets and a basic kit that includes toothpaste, eye shades and travel socks.

Shortly after take off, the cabin crew offer to put a thin mattress on the seats to make them more padded and comfortable, particularly for sleeping.

Qantas-business-class-skybed-lumbar-supportseat controls including the massage functions

The lie flat beds are reasonably comfortable with various lumbar options and a fairly weird massage function that doesn’t seem to do a great deal.

Overall the Qantas Sky Beds allow a good night’s sleep which is the main point of paying for business on a long haul flight.

Inflight service

Cabin service is polite and efficient although the cabin crew have a habit of vanishing. One of the downsides of the vanishing crew is it’s easy to end up dehydrated over the 14 hour journey despite their prompt response to the cabin call button.

Qantas-business-class-late-night-snackearly morning coffee and crackers

When called there were plenty of food and drink options although snacks surprising ran out later in the flight leaving only the option of cheese and biscuits with an early morning coffee.

Qantas-business-class-dinnerdinner service

Dinner was served two hours into the flight and the minced chicken on noodles was a reasonable meal although a touch bland, the cheese tray suffered the perennial airline problem of being stingy with the biscuits.

Qantas-business-class-breakfastBreakfast bruschetta

Breakfast ninety minutes out from Los Angeles had a fairly standard range of airline breakfasts – the mushroom bruschetta was a pleasant, light and tasty option.

Surfing the options

The inflight entertainment system is a fairly standard offering with a good range of current and older movies and TV series. The personalised playlist being a bit of a disappointment given it doesn’t automatically move on at the end of each song while the news and current affairs programs are somewhat parochial although that’s forgiven on the Australian flag carrier.

Arrival in Los Angeles was on time with the only draw back being that Qantas couldn’t check bags through to JFK which required collected bags at Tom Bradley, dragging them across to United’s Terminal Seven and re-checking the bags. For connecting flights this is a bit of a hassle although its made easier when you’ve arrived relaxed and refreshed after a good night’s sleep.

Overall, the Qantas A380 Business Class is comfortable product that meets the needs of a business traveller who needs to work or sleep on a flight. If your budget — or that of your employer — can cover the cost then its a choice worth making.

Aug 172014
 
First Boeing 747

The 747 Jumbo jet defined an era of international travel and now it’s coming to an end.

Whether the 747 was the first true jumbo jet – the 747-400 certainty wasn’t – is a question for debate; for my money the DC-10 was the original ‘heavy’. But really it doesn’t matter as the Boeing aircraft defined the late Twentieth Century model of global tourism.

The era of the heavy wide bodied jet planes chained international travel and spawned the modern tourist industry.

With the retirement of the last 747’s an important chapter of the Twentieth Century closes. What follows will define the shape of today’s tourist and business travel industry.

Jun 162014
 
located near the Moscone Centre is the Marriott Marquis hotel

The San Francisco Chronicle has a great feature mapping apartment rental service AirBnB’s effects on the city’s economy.

By trawling through the AirBnB database, The Chronicle found 4,800 properties for rent in the city to glean a great deal of information that the company is not keen to share.

A key point from the survey is that over 80% – 3200 – of the properties are householders renting out spare rooms or their places while they are away, which is exactly what AirBnB claim their service is designed for.

The other, professional hosts are what’s attracted the wrath of regulators in cities like New York, where it appears unofficial hotels are skating around taxation and safety regulations.

A new breed of middleman

Catering for these professional hosts has seen another group of middlemen service pop up and The Chronicle features Airenvy, a service that helps landlords manage their properties.

Airenvy is now the biggest San Francisco host, managing 59 properties on behalf of its clients and charging 12 percent commission for dealing with the daily hassle of looking after guests. Since launching in January it employs twelve staff.

Unlike many of the internet middlemen, Airenvy does seem to add value to the renting process above being a simple listing service. For absentee hosts, the fees would seem to be worthwhile in reducing risks and problems.

Filling the gaps

A unique thing about San Francisco is the concentration of hotels around Union Square with 20,000 of the city’s hotel rooms within a ten minute walk of the Moscone Centre.

For non-convention visitors, particularly those visiting family or friends, AirBnB is an opportunity to get a place out of downtown.

The price ranges reflect the service’s diversity as well; from $18 a night for a couch through to $6,000 for a mansion. The average though is close to a typical hotel rate of $226 a day.

The effects of AirBnB

What the survey shows is AirBnB has diversified San Francisco’s accommodation options without the problems being encountered in New York.

That isn’t to say there aren’t problems – the Silicon Valley model of pushing responsibility and consequences onto users leaves a lot of risk for the both the service and its customers – however AirBnB is another example of how industries are evolving as information becomes easier to find.

Another thing this survey shows is the new breed of data journalism and how analysing the numbers can be the foundation of building great stories.

The AirBnB and the changing global travel industry is a great story in itself as the San Francisco Chronicle has shown.

 

May 182014
 
ferry-sign-palm-beach-to-ettalong

Newcastle, a 160km north of Sydney is a drive easily done in less than two hours but for masochists and commuters there’s the three hour train trip affectionately known as the shitkansen by the locals.

The train trip itself has parts that are genuinely spectacular as it winds through the hills and rivers of the New South Wales’ Central Coast, albeit at speeds that are slower than in the 1933 timetables.

One of the reasons for the slow and spectacular trip is the Hawkesbury River and Broken Bay and that presents a natural barrier between Sydney, the Central Coast and Newcastle.

That natural barrier also presents an opportunity for a third, prettier route between the two cities using the private ferry service that runs between Central and Sydney’s northernmost suburb of Palm Beach.

Catching the slow train

slow-train-newcastle-sydney-shitkansen

Starting from the original Newcastle Railway Station, the trains run twice an hour during the day with one ‘fast’ service taking two-and-a-half hours and slow trips taking three.

interior-of-newcastle-sydney-slow-train

Inside the trains things are relatively comfortable although quite grubby. The purple colour scheme are the refurbished older carriages, the original 1970s ones being in a fairly awful green. The news trains feature a modern vandal proof colour scheme although the seats are more uncomfortable for a three hour journey.

Another weakness with the train service is the spartan facilities, apart from graffiti covered toilets there are absolutely no passenger amenities so bringing your own food and drink is essential along with fully charged electronics as there are no power outlets available.

closing-newcastle-sydney-railway-line

Amazingly, rather than improving the railway service to the state’s second biggest city the government plans to abandon the last five kilometers and replace the trains with buses. If there was one example of the 1960s thinking that dominates Australian politics, this venal and ill-thought out proposal is a wonderful example.

The Central Coast

While the parts of the ride between Sydney and Newcastle are spectacular, the stretch south to the Central Coast are the boring parts featuring little more than housing estates and low grade scrub until arriving at Gosford where the train runs alongside Brisbane Water until Woy Woy.

woy-woy-shopping-centre

On alighting the train at Woy Woy, the immediate impression is a town that won’t win any heritage awards with its neglected main street and an anonymous shopping mall. All of which is a pity as its location between the hills and waterways is sensational.

Sadly there’s little reason to hang around so getting a bus to Ettalong is the best thing to do.

bus-woy-woy-to-ettalong

From Woy’s Woy’s dismal transport interchange – a fate that waits Newcastle’s truncated railway service – buses leave every few minutes for the 15 minute journey to Ettalong. If you have a Sydney transport travelpass then your ticket is valid on the private bus service.

Ettalong

If you’re stopping for lunch or a break during the journey, Ettalong isn’t a bad choice with a lot more coffee bars, restaurants and bakeries than the rather depressing choices at Woy Woy.

Since this writer’s last visit to the town three years ago when its centre was struggling with many empty shops; its fortunes have improved dramatically and it’s gone back to being a good destination for a day trip in itself.

Catching the ferry

ettalong-palm-beach-ferry

The ferry itself is a twenty minute trip including a brief stop at the village of Wagstaffe. Its route winds through the sandbanks of Brisbane Water before getting to the open water of Broken Bay.

lion-island-hawkesbury-ettalong-to-palm-beach-ferry

Midway across the bay, the ferry passes Lion Island and the mouth of the Hawkesbury River before entering Pittwater and the Northern Suburbs of Sydney.

Palm Beach

arrival-at-palm-beach-ferry-wharf

The wharf at Palm Beach is a classic wooden structure in a lovely location. Across the carpark and road is a general store, the Barranjoey House restaurant and a fish and chip shop.

For a takeaway meal, the fish and chip shop is nicer than the general store but you can enjoy either at the park alongside the ferry wharf.

For a sit down meal, Barrenjoey House has an expensive restaurant along with a bar with an outdoor seating area if you’re looking for a cold drink while waiting for a bus to Sydney.

The bus to Sydney

l90-bus-from-sydney-to-palm-beach

The bus back to Sydney takes about 90 minutes. It isn’t the most comfortable journey however the views of the city’s gorgeous Northern Beaches are worthwhile if you’re sittiing on the left side when heading south.

Once past Long Reef, the journey is mainly suburbia except when crossing the Spit and Harbour Bridges. A more interesting option that will add another hour to the journey is to switch buses at Warringah Mall and travel to the city via the Manly Ferry.

Taking the Slowkansen from Newcastle to Sydney isn’t the trip for anyone in a hurry with it adding up to two hours to an already slow three train hour journey but it’s a lot more interesting than the regular way to travel between the two cities.