CHECK-IN Auckland’s international airport is about 25 minutes’ drive from the city centre, and I arrived at 2045 by airport shuttle from my hotel, the De Brett, which meant it only cost about NZ$25 (£12) as opposed to NZ$80 (£40) by regular taxi.
The premium check-in zone was empty and I was promptly issued with a boarding pass and my cases weighed and tagged. I then took a lift upstairs to departures on level one for fast-track security. I filled in an orange customs form and was through quickly – there were only a couple of Japanese schoolgirls ahead of me.
THE LOUNGE I followed the signs to the Air New Zealand/Star Alliance lounge one floor up via a set of escalators, and my boarding pass was scanned before entry was granted. Inside, there was plenty of seating, a quiet area, work benches, free wifi, a couple of PCs, free mobile phone charging, TVs showing sport, a kitchen and a massage zone with the opportunity to get free reflexology treatments.
I booked a foot massage for half an hour’s time and then went to the dining section to get some refreshments. Although there was no champagne, sparkling wine, beer, spirits, soft drinks, tea and coffee were available, along with a modest selection of average quality food including noodle salad, soup, shepherd’s pie, cheese, bread, savoury pastries and scones.
The décor sported a colour scheme of lime green, beige, brown, cream and grey, but the harsh lighting made the place feel a bit clinical and soulless. At 2210 I went back for my 15-minute foot massage, which was very relaxing and perfect before a long flight. Treatments are free for all Air New Zealand business class passengers (NZ$15/£7 for all other travellers).
BOARDING At 2230 it was announced that my flight was boarding from Gate 6 (there are no screens in the lounge, which I found a bit disconcerting) so I walked back down the escalators, through duty-free, to the gate about eight minutes away. There were a lot of people queuing but I headed straight for the business class/Star Alliance gold channel and was on board by 2245. As with my outbound flight, I was in 16A at the front of the upper deck of the B747. Sparkling wine, juice and water were offered, coats hung, and the safety demo played before departure.
THE SEAT Economy class on the B747 is arranged in a 3-4-3 (A-B-C, D-E-F-G, H-J-K rows 35-68) configuration on the lower deck, while premium economy and business are on both decks. The former is arranged 2-2 (A-C, H-K rows 27-30) downstairs and 3-2 (A-B-C, H-K rows 22-26) upstairs, while the latter is in a 1-2-1 (A, E-F, K rows ten to 15) on the lower deck, and 1-1 (A-K) upstairs (rows 16-20) and downstairs (one to seven) at the front. (Click here for a seat plan.)
Business class is in a herringbone configuration, which means all passengers have direct access to the aisle and an added sense of privacy. Upholstery is light brown and cream leather, and behind the shell surround are pillows and duvet covers for when the fully flat beds need to be made up. Amenity kits in corduroy bags contained a toothbrush and paste, socks, eyemask, lip balm, eye gel and a pen (but no moisturiser). A wine list and menu were placed on the ottoman at the end of the seat, and bottles of water and noise-cancelling headphones (although I preferred to use my own in-ear ones) were also provided.
The seat has various settings that allow passengers varying degrees of recline, right back to fully flat for sleeping. Although the offering proved to be quite spacious and comfortable, Air New Zealand’s new business class product, which is now available on the new B777-300 it has introduced on the route, is far superior. Click here for more information or visit our Facebook page for excusive behind-the-scenes photos of the prototype.
WHICH SEAT TO CHOOSE? I was sitting in window seat 16A, in the front row of the upper deck, which although has a more exclusive feel did mean I was constantly disturbed by the door to the crew rest area and cockpit opening and closing so it would have been better to have been sitting in 16K or further back or in the front section downstairs. Passengers should also be aware of choosing seats downstairs in row ten as they may suffer from some disturbance from the washrooms.
THE FLIGHT The plane pushed back at 2305 and took off shortly after at 2315. The estimated flight time was 11 hours, 45 minutes to LA (10,545km from Auckland), where I was to transfer to London Heathrow. Half an hour later, the dinner service started. A member of crew laid my table with a white cloth and metal cutlery and asked if I’d like any wine. As I had pre-ordered a vegetarian “special” meal, I didn’t get a choice of what to eat, and was presented with a very unappetising starter of two balls of unidentifiable mush, which needless to say, I didn’t eat.
I was also served some fruit salad and two jelly-like mounds – one clear, one orange – with a couple of berries set into them. I assumed this was dessert but it came with the starter. The main course wasn’t much better – some kind of squishy patty made of rice and vegetables with green beans and a greasy smear of tomato sauce. I ate some of it and decided I had had better meals in economy. I couldn’t help feeling a little hard done by.
The cabin lights were dimmed at 0130. I watched a film (of which there was a good choice) and ate some ice cream. I then made up the bed and slept fitfully (there was a lot of turbulence en route) until 0820. I got up at 0830 to freshen up and stretch my legs, and returned to my seat a short while later for breakfast. Smoothies and juices were served at 0900, followed by yoghurt with fruit, bread, muffins or croissants. There was also a hot option and, as before, this was inedible – a slimy vegetarian sausage with an oily sweetcorn and potato rosti, a sad mushroom and a flaccid piece of tomato. I had a cup of coffee instead and completed the blue customs form I was given for arrival in Los Angeles that meant I could use the lounge even though I was in transit.
ARRIVAL The aircraft landed at 1045 New Zealand time (1400 local time) and business class passengers were disembarked efficiently via an airbridge. Those transferring to London were herded into a waiting area close to the gate and handed large orange plastic transit cards. I asked where the lounge was and was told to wait as they were going to have to arrange hotels for everyone. Baffled, as this was the first I had heard about my connection being cancelled, I took my seat and waited until everyone was off the plane.
We were then informed that because of snow at Heathrow, the airport had been shut (the flight took place in December last year), and at 1430 we were told to complete immigration forms and collect our luggage before meeting landside for a shuttle to the Hilton LA Airport hotel. Considering how many people they had to process, I was extremely impressed by how quickly and professionally the whole process was handled.
Although it was a 30-minute wait for my suitcase, I was outside the airport and queuing for the bus by 1510, and after a ten-minute drive we arrived at the hotel. I then had another 15-minute wait for check-in but was soon presented with a keycard to my complimentary room, and food and drinks vouchers for dinner, breakfast and lunch the following day.
THE WAIT As Air New Zealand only operates one flight a day between LA and London, Heathrow was closed for much of the time, and planes were full in the run up to Christmas, I had to spend two nights at the hotel. There were regular updates posted in the lobby, which passengers had to check throughout the day and evening, as well as a couple of meetings with airline representatives (including ANZ’s national manager) in a boardroom of the hotel. Unsurprisingly, people were pretty irate, but I thought that the staff did the best they could to be calm, polite and helpful.
On the second morning I was there, ANZ staff agreed to stop online reservations being made for flight NZ2 back to London and prioritise those who had been stranded. People were then told that Star Alliance Gold Elite, families and business class passengers would be given priority for the afternoon service that day. I spoke to a member of staff who advised me to get the airport shuttle at 1400 and put myself on standby, which I did, and in the hope that it would better my chances, I also told her that although I was travelling business, I wouldn’t mind which class I was booked in so long as I got that flight.
Click here to read the review of the LA-London sector.
VERDICT A pretty horrendous journey with awful food and two nights stranded in LA waiting to get home because of snow in London. However, Air New Zealand staff were friendly, helpful, polite and professional, and seemed to do a good job of dealing with a lot of very angry, demanding travellers. Although I got home when I did, though, I fear many dozens of other people were stuck in LA for many days after.
PRICE Internet rates for a return business class flight from London to Auckland via LA started from £4,366 in July.
PLANE TYPE B747-400
SEAT WIDTH 21in/53.5cm
SEAT LENGTH 79.5in/202cm
SEAT RECLINE 180 degrees