Last Tuesday (31st May), I flew from London Heathrow to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) with Air New Zealand. It was my first time flying with the kiwi airline and I really had no idea what to expect. When I originally made my booking in April, I knew nothing of the airline and I was skeptical about why their airfare seemed so much cheaper than all of the competitor airlines. I was worried that perhaps it was a discount airline, which would make flying the 12 ish hours less than comfortable. Much to my delight though, I learned that the seemingly discounted air fare was a result of Air New Zealand’s recently revamped image. Apparently, earlier this year, Air New Zealand ‘redesigned’ their long-haul flight from London to Aukland (via LAX); meaning new planes and (hopefully) a better flying experience. A closer look at the website revealed to me an entertainment system to be excited about (even in economy), what promised to be very friendly service, and a good system for snacks and drinks in place between meal times. After years of flying back and forth between London and LA on tired old planes with flickering screens, no snacks, and flight attendants who would be better suited as prison guards, I looked forward to a new flying experience with an airline I had not yet sampled.
The night before my flight I stayed up till about 2am packing. I will be in the US all summer and I will likely be moving flats as soon as I return to London so I needed to have a very good clean out and pack thoroughly for the 3+ months I’ll be in the US. When I went to bed I had 2 bags packed and my carry on ready, barring my laptop and toothbrush which I would add the next morning. The next day, my friend was coming to pick me up at noon. At 11:15 am, as I was zipping up my bags, I thought that they both seemed a little on the heavy side so to play it safe I decided to look up Air New Zealand’s baggage weight allowance for economy. I got the scale out of my bathroom and I noted that both of my checked bags were teetering around 25kg, which was risky. Once on the website, my eyes quickly scanned the page looking to see what the weight allowance was, when I noted (much to my disbelief and utter dismay) that it said there was only a single checked bag allowance for passengers flying in economy on their long-haul flights! What??? Never, in all the years that I have been flying between London and the USA, or anywhere on a long-haul international flight for that matter, have I only been allowed 1 checked bag! What the hell is that? I refused to believe the website and I decided to call the airline. There had to be some kind of a mistake. I had never heard of such a ridiculous baggage allowance for an international flight! After being on hold for 20 minutes and listening to the same recording on a loop apologising for the wait and boasting about Air New Zealand’s ‘famous kiwi hospitality’, I was pretty unravelled. Absolutely freaking out is a much more accurate description of how I actually was at that point – heart thumping, sweat dripping down my forehead and lower back as I frantically unzipped both suitcases and ran in circles around them like a chicken with its head cut off – trying to figure out what was expendable and what was essential – and even more desperately trying to figure out what the hell I was going to do with my second bag and where I was going to put all my stuff with my ride now coming in less than 20 minutes! Finally, after 20 sweaty and anxiety ridden minutes, I was connected to a very matter of-a-fact gentleman from New Zealand who confirmed for me that what I had read was in fact true, I could only have one checked bag. He went on to tell me that in addition to only 1 checked bag, I could also only have 1 carry on (that was my back up plan out the window). My checked bag could only weigh 23kg (gah!) and my carry on could only weigh 7kg (not great considering I was planning on carrying on my laptop). What a terrible thing to do to a woman just minutes before she’s leaving to go on a trip for 3+ months! Not a good start Air New Zealand – minus 100 points and I hadn’t even gotten to the airport yet. Not good at all. Looking back now I feel kind of sorry for the man on the other end of the phone who was finally connected with me. If I could go back now and redo those moments on the phone with him I probably would. Poor guy. I can’t remember our whole conversation exactly but he was trying to tell me what my options were (even though there weren’t any options really), and I was slightly hysterical. I remember barking at him something along the lines of ‘You call this kiwi hospitality?? This is a f*****g joke! I have 2 bags and 2 carry ons!’, followed by, ‘No, I don’t want to talk to you anymore, my ride is coming in less than 15 minutes and I have 4 bags packed!’, before finally hanging up on him while he was mid-sentence. Poor guy. He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. So, it wasn’t a good start for Air New Zealand. When my friend picked me up I was absolutely shaking and the first words out of my mouth were “I think I’m about to have a panic attack”.
When I arrived at Heathrow I was a little more relaxed having aptly vented my frustrations about Air New Zealand’s less than adequate baggage allowance on Twitter and facebook, though I was still a little tense while waiting in the queue to check my bag as I had decided to ignore the only 1 carry on bag rule. I was carrying my laptop bag and an overnight bag (a Nike gym bag), in addition to my checked bag which I was fairly certain exceeded the 23kg weight allowance. I looked at the people in the queue around me and, much to my surprise, all of them seemed to have just one carry on and one checked bag. Obviously experienced ANZ travellers. Also, I noticed that all of the people behind the counter checking people’s bags were women. (Men are usually more sympathetic to the plight of a woman travelling on her own with overweight baggage. I might be speaking from loads of experience…) Fortunately for me though, I was greeted by a very friendly woman behind the counter who actually did seem to exude that ‘famous kiwi hospitality’. When I put my bag on the scale I thought my heart was going to thump out of my chest as I watched the numbers on the scale shoot up…26kg, crap. I thought for sure I would have to pay a stupid excess baggage fee. But the woman behind the counter just put the luggage tag on my bag and sent it on its way down the conveyor belt. Then she looked at me and cocked her head to one side and said “You have a beautiful smile”. Oh, I see. Well, if that’s what got me out of having to pay excess baggage fees then fine, I could work with that. I grinned at her and thanked her very much as she handed me my boarding pass and passports back. Phew! She didn’t say a thing to me about my huge overnight bag and laptop bag (both busting at the seams and clearly weighing me down far more than the carry on allowance of 7kg).
I walked through security and the guy at the retina scanners followed up the ANZ woman’s comment with, “Great smile”. I had to do a double take and look behind me to make sure he was talking to me! The people at security in Heathrow never have a sense of humour, much less try to flirt with you! I giggled nervously and handed him my boarding pass. He smiled at me and handed it back to me. I smiled nervously back at him and walked through and he yelled behind me, “and there it is again”. Damn, I was on fire! I had to smile after that! By the time I was though security I was in a pretty good mood.
When I got to my gate it dawned on me that I had forgotten to ask if I had a window seat (something I had requested when I booked my ticket). I looked at my boarding pass, 35H. Hmmm, that didn’t sound like a window seat to me. I was pretty sure a window would be A or K. I went up to the counter and asked if it was a window seat. The woman smiled at me and said “No, it’s not a window seat but let’s put you in 35G, it’s an aisle seat and it’s a better one than 35H.” Okay, an aisle was still better than a middle seat. ANZ’s hospitality was quickly making up for its poor baggage allowance.
Once on the plane I learned that row 35 was the bulkhead (yesss!) between business and economy. I was in the middle row of seats on the aisle. Not too shabby! Plus, to make things even better, I was seated next to a couple with a toddler and the toddler was in the seat next to me – so essentially it was an empty seat as he was in his parents arms the whole flight. I sat down in my seat with the baggage shenanigans from the morning already a distant memory!
The plane was clearly a new plane and I was very impressed. The flight attendants were really, extremely friendly and I noted that every seat had its own touch screen entertainment system, even in economy. I sat down and started flipping though the movie selection to see what I could watch once we took off. I was instantly delighted to see 8 pages of movies (with roughly 15-20 movies to choose from per page) and each passenger had the ability to make a playlist of movies. So, before take off, I had already made myself a list of about 10 movies I really wanted to watch. Some being old classics, and others more recent blockbusters I had missed in the cinema. There were also a ton of tv shows to choose from, most starting right from their pilot episodes and going right up to where they are currently. I also noted lots of video games to choose from and a remote control which when flipped over was a video game controller – something I had only seen before on Virgin Atlantic. Also much to my delight, as I felt the AC switch on at an extremely cold temperature, I took my blanket out of its plastic wrapping to discover that it was fleece! No itchy wool, static hair-inducing blanket for me! Ha! It was soft fleece, and it was huge, amply covering me and wrapping around my feet and shoulders all in one go. I was pleased. My pillow I noted also had a soft cotton pillow case on it. Very nice.
When we pulled out of the gate and the safety video started, I relaxed back into my seat for a short snooze. I closed my eyes and listened to the safety video starting up in the background with two ANZ flight attendants welcoming you on board. They said “Kia ora, and welcome onboard…now we would like to run you through a few on board safety exercises…” and then the background music kicked in with Yazz’s ‘The Only Way is Up’, which completely caught me off guard. My eyes flicked open and I looked at the screen in front of me not sure if I could believe the music that had been selected for the safety video. As I opened my eyes, I watched the screen change from two ANZ air stewardesses standing inside a plane, to the inside of a plane with flashing coloured lights and the title, ‘Fit to Fly with Richard Simmons’ popped up on the screen. And then, sure enough, Richard Simmons bounced into the safety video, followed by about 10 other people, all wearing appropriate 80′s gym attire. Hysterical! Now they had my full attention. I laughed out loud and literally watched every minute of what were the funniest and most entertaining safety video ‘exercises’ I have ever seen. (I found it on youtube if you’re interested: Richard Simmons ANZ Safety Video.)
With the safety video all finished, I bundled up tightly in my blanket and felt myself drifting off as we took off. Not long after I woke up from my nap, the captain made the standard speech about us reaching our cruising altitude and how even if they turn off the seat belt sign you should still wear your seat belt, just in case. Then he introduced Lucy, the plane’s Concierge. What? That was another new one for me! Lucy got on the PA system and introduced herself and explained how her uniform differed from the normal flight attendants’ uniforms. She said she would be walking around the cabin throughout the flight and that she was happy to answer any questions etc. Impressive. When they brought dinner out a short while later I should really have not been so surprised that it was, once again, very good. I had roast chicken and mashed potatoes and the wine was included – no one asked me to pay. I feel like its been hit and miss with alcohol on international flights these past few years. I know on British Airways alcohol is still complimentary, but with United Air and Virgin I have had to pay in recent years (which I think is about as criminal as ANZ’s baggage allowance, and I handled it in much the same way when I discovered their amended ‘policies’). When I looked down at my tray and went to start my meal, I was pleased to note that the cutlery was metal – not the cheap plastic that most airlines have used since 9/11 and heightened security measures. I also noted that in addition to the main course, salad and bread roll, there was also a cheese plate and ice cream included with each meal. Definitely more than a standard airline dinner. I wondered what they were given in business and first class, as the economy meal already far surpassed what I had (sadly) grown accustomed to with other airlines.
After the meal was all cleared away and lights were being dimmed for sleep, I was still wide awake and very much enjoying my on flight entertainment. I flipped around with the different menu options and decided to order myself another glass of wine. The ANZ touch screen system was not just for entertainment, it is also used to order snacks and drinks (though you have to pay if you order through the screen). Just as I was starting to order myself another glass of wine, a flight attendant walked by and asked if I was okay. I said I was fine and I was just ordering a glass of wine. He was very friendly and he told me not to order through the screen because then I’d have to pay! He winked at me and asked me what I was drinking. Amazing! What a great flight attendant…and he kept my glass full for two more glasses. Now that is kiwi hospitality!
After watching a movie (and getting pretty tipsy with the help of my flight attendant friend), I got up to go to the toilet. I noticed outside of the toilet a large tray table folded out with snacks and soft drinks on it for people to just help themselves to. That was nice. Most airlines definitely don’t offer that either. The toilet as well was really nice (by airplane standards). The walls were decorated with drawings of bookshelves full of books about New Zealand. I noted the titles of some of these books and I was fairly amused. One of them being something along the lines of, ‘I like New Zealand – will you marry me so I can stay?’ and ‘A Sheep’s Tale, Baaa Baaa Ba’. Wow. I was surprised they went into such detail to even have New Zealand specific decorations in the toilet!
The rest of the flight was fairly seamless. I slept well for a few hours and breakfast was really good. There were four choices, which was just unheard of to me. I had a vegetable quiche and scones with jam and clotted cream. Don’t think I’ve ever had such a good breakfast on a plane before, even when flying first class! Just before we landed, Lucy (the concierge) came around and made sure everyone had the correct landing forms and knew where they would be connecting. When we landed the captain thanked us all for flying with ANZ, and he followed up his announcement with a few personal messages. First he wished one of the couples on board a congratulations on their marriage and said he hoped they would enjoy their honeymoon, and then he wished one of the crew members, David, good luck on the charity mission he was about to embark on, biking from San Francisco to Los Angeles for charity. The captain said David’s bike was stowed away on the plane and that him and the crew all wished him the best. And after my flying experience with Air New Zealand, I can whole heartedly say that I too wish David the best, and that couple on their honeymoon! I was in a positively good mood when I got off the plane and I will definitely be flying with Air New Zealand again. The morning after my flight I woke up and enrolled in Air New Zealand’s Reward program.
Kia ora Air New Zealand, you’ve made a life-long customer out of me. Perhaps I’ll be able to use my air miles for a better baggage allowance in the future?