Back in August I jumped on an Air New Zealand fare sale on the carrier’s once-weekly flight between Los Angeles and Rarotonga, Cook Islands.  Rarotonga and the Cooks are little known in America, though it’s a favorite New Zealand tropical getaway. I wrote about the place in a post here.

I intended to book the airline’s Premium Economy roundtrip, but curiosity got the better of me, and I upgraded to Air NZ’s Business Class returning. The fare difference of several hundred dollars on the way home made sense when I discovered the 777-200 aircraft on the LAX/RAR route are now equipped with NZ’s newest lie-flat seats in Business rather than the carrier’s old cradle-style Business seats.

Why pay extra?  I wanted to compare the comfort, space, and service of each class.  Regular readers will know that I have flown international first and business class services on most airlines worldwide since the 1970s, but Premium Economy is relatively novel to me.

So what’s the verdict? The experience of testing both classes was worth the money. Based on my personal criteria, I would choose to fly again in Air New Zealand’s Premium Economy over Business Class.

The reason? NZ’s lie-flat Business Class, the premier service option, is fine and dandy, but the extra space, comfort, and service in PE was sufficient to provide me with all I needed for long flights, including restful sleep.  The premium to get into the front cabin isn’t justified to me, despite the excellent service to be enjoyed there.

Air New Zealand PE is so good, compared to lie-flat Business, that I can easily imagine the airline eliminating Business Class entirely on some routes like LAX/RAR in favor of just two classes: PE and economy.

That said, things didn’t get off to a propitious start on Air New Zealand 19 from LAX to Rarotonga on December 16.  Bradley International Terminal has long been overcrowded, with the result that LAX has created “temporary” remote boarding stands way down at the west end of airport between the runways. Temporary since 2001, that is.

When real gates at Bradley become saturated, flights are assigned to those remote boarding stands, and passengers are bussed to the planes. To load buses, flyers are herded to the extreme northwest corner of Bradley, essentially the terminal basement, where a shabby, ill-lit, makeshift warehouse-store-size area that opens directly to the tarmac has been set up with podiums reminiscent of Costco checkout counters.  The podiums are labeled as gates, which of course they are not, but they serves to screen passengers before allowing them out on the tarmac to buses. It’s a third world experience.

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Look like fun?  NOT!

After enduring the Wal-Martish, almost penal colony aura of the cavernous and ugly space around gates 136 to 141 at the NW lower corner of Bradley LAX, NZ19 boarding (to buses) commenced. Air New Zealand agents called Business Class first, then Premium Economy, and we dutifully boarded the bus, relieved at least that we’d get to the plane ahead of the unwashed.

Wrong!  Our bus sat on the tarmac until it was packed to the gills: Business Class, Premium Economy, and sardine class travelers crushed together in a triumph of egalitarian execution. Incongruously, a food truck parked on the tarmac adjacent to our idling bus, something I’ve never seen at an airport anywhere, beckoned late night workers (it was after 10:00 PM by then).

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Food truck on the active LAX tarmac.  Wonder if the driver was screened.

Only when not a single additional stroller or baby seat or bag or body could be shoved into the bus did the doors close. The vehicle shimmied and groaned as it ground slowly to the far western end of LAX to the “temporary” gate stand adjacent to our aircraft.  Other buses, likewise packed, followed.

The buses vomited out their throngs onto a dystopian, harsh concrete ramp up a menacing, shadowy incline to a flimsy, narrow jet bridge, a cinematic scene from the film noir genre.  The experience sent shivers through me.  Many of the youngest children sensed a vague threat in the darkness and shadow and began to wail in fear. I flashed on pigs being whipped up a ramp into the slaughterhouse. Ah, LAX paradise!

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The creepy ramp of dark shadows at the remote stand at LAX

The relief of finally reaching the airplane door was palpable. I remarked to an Air NZ staffer herding us that it was a shocking welcome on board. He leaned in close and hissed through gritted teeth to me, “Dehumanizing indeed, and it’s been this way for SIXTEEN YEARS!”

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Little kids cried in fear as we made our way up the unwelcoming ramp to the plane at LAX

Nice people as New Zealanders are, staff feigned happy talk, but it was a total horror show boarding, and not even a pretense of differentiation among classes of service.  Only when we stepped on board did some passengers peel away to Business Class while the rest of us found our seats in Premium Economy or coach.  I felt sorry for Business Class customers who deserved better treatment for the fares they had paid.

Any advantage I had in securing my carryon by being boarded ahead of other passengers had been lost in the chaos just described. I had paid $10 extra for a bulkhead seat in Premium Economy, but the forward compartment over my seat contained a roller bag, and the PE cabin was already nearly full, including the overheads. Guess I should have waited to board the bus last so as to be first off and up the creepy ramp.

I found overhead space, but it was far enough behind me to be a nuisance when I needed access to my bag.  I would later spot an Air NZ flight attendant going into that roller bag in the overhead compartment directly above my bulkhead seat.  I was not amused by her capture of what I viewed as my precious space.  I contemplated asking her for my $10 back.

A “welcome on board” glass of Champagne to sooth my soul would have been nice. I expected at least a NZ bubbly, if not the real thing.  After all, Cathay routinely serves boarding Champagne in their PE cabin (see this post).

It never came.  Air NZ flight attendants were frantically helping customers find their seats.  I couldn’t get anyone’s attention.  Up in Business Class, though, I could see eager hands grabbing for Champagne flutes then being brought down the aisle, to my envy.

We pulled away 35 minutes behind schedule, but the captain informed us it would be a short 8.5 hours to Rarotonga once airborne and we would arrive on time. I dozed on takeoff, glad the madness of LAX was finished.

As soon as I dropped into my PE seat I found that it was plenty wide enough for comfort and for privacy from my seatmate. I also noted the seat bottom was well-padded for comfort, and I figured out the tricky leg rest mechanism.  The heavy blanket and large pillow were boons to slumber, too, as were the complimentary headphones, which appeared identical to the ones provided in Business.  The seat’s comfy angle of recline contributed to relaxation as well.

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My bulkhead PE seat (on the right) on NZ19 LAX/RAR

Forty minutes after takeoff smiling, energetic Air New Zealand flight attendants began making up for the omission of boarding service by bringing around trays of Champagne and orange juice.

Served in plastic glasses, though, and a bit flat and tepid. Obviously the crew had poured as many as possible on climb-out and let the stuff sit until it lost its fizz and warmed to cabin temp.  I flashed on the Cathay PE Champagne served in real glasses, perfectly chilled and quite bubbly.  I knew I had been spoiled.

Nonetheless, I downed my cup in one gulp and glanced up to grab another.  The FA noticed my look of dire need and promised me a second serving would be “the good stuff from behind the iron curtain!” He winked and nodded towards Business Class.  Soon he was back with a real glass of real French Champagne, cold and fizzy. I savored that one slowly and properly.

The meal was eventually presented in several courses.  Not nearly as lavish as Business Class, but with tasty enough options. Entrees were inexplicably much delayed. When I was served another real glass flute of real French Champagne from the front cabin without asking, I didn’t complain.

The movie selection was good, and the screens in PE of excellent resolution and size.  I tried hard to watch the 1966 Paul Newman movie “Harper” but couldn’t keep my eyes open.  The Air NZ Premium Economy seat had the right soporific design elements.  Despite attentive flight attendants in the PE cabin throughout the night, I slept soundly.

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Looking over the PE cabin on NZ19 LAX/RAR

I awoke for a two course breakfast (one cold, one hot), which was good and hit the spot, after a satisfying sleep.  Soon we were on final approach to Rarotonga Airport.  I kept thinking what an easy and relaxing flight it had been after such a frenzied beginning at LAX, to which I attributed the great seat design combined with good cabin service.

Returning RAR/LAX on NZ18 in Business Class six days later included use of the modest but superb Air NZ lounge airside at Rarotonga Airport.  It’s a tiny airport to begin with, and I was therefore surprised to find a club at all.  I was glad to have the oasis of calm to wait in and even more pleased to discover the finger food and cheeses were delicious.

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Air New Zealand lounge at Rarotonga Airport

When boarding time arrived for our 777-200 the lounge manager announced that we were to follow her to the gate, which was just outside the door.  The airside space at the RAR Airport is small, so it was a short walk to the gate agents, who checked passports and boarding passes (again) and showed us to the planeside stairs (no jetways at RAR).  It was an easy, relaxed process, just the way it should have been done, so much better than the craziness at LAX outbound.

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Looking from the Air NZ lounge at RAR into the entirety of the tiny airside waiting area

On board a flock of flight attendants in Business Class greeted us with big smiles and showed us to our seats, immediately returning with trays of Champagne and orange juice. Once my luggage was stowed in the large overhead compartments, I settled into seat 2A, the first row window-side seat.  The Champagne was again not very chilled and almost flat, but I said to hell with it and drank up two glasses anyway.

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Air New Zealand 777-200 flight NZ18 on Dec 22 ready for boarding on the tarmac at Rarotonga

Note I did not say bulkhead or window seat.  Air New Zealand’s lie-flat Business seats adjacent to windows are angled sharply away from the windows so that passengers face the aisle, not the bulkhead.  It was difficult and uncomfortable from that strange position to turn to look out the window.

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NZ18 Business Class seats face the aisle in a herringbone pattern

Aisle seats are also angled sharply facing forward towards the aisle, but in the opposite direction from the window seats in a herringbone pattern so that no one is exactly looking at anyone else, though a glance left or right will catch another passenger’s eye when they are seated.

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NZ18 Business Class showing angled seats on opposite aisle

I don’t like this kind of angled seats.  The NZ ones are similar to the design of Virgin Atlantic’s Business Class (Upper Class—see my review here).  The seats feel a bit cramped and somehow too close to one’s neighbor, which I grant is an odd description considering that Air NZ Premium Economy seats are in reality closer together than those in Business.  And yet I prefer the PE seat configuration.

We were soon airborne and bound for Los Angeles, and the grand service began.  The evening meal came, as always in every airline’s Business Class, in several courses. It was all superior to the food in PE, even if awkwardly served on the large tray that pops up at the flick of a button.  Awkward because of the odd way the food portions were placed counterintuitively lengthwise on the tray, not because of flight attendant inadequacy. All good, though, including hot tea to finish.

Air NZ’s new biz seats have little ability to recline because of the bed mechanism.  At the touch of another button, the entire seat flips over with a soft “pop” sound and becomes a flat surfaced bed on which the FAs unroll a slim but comfortable padded mattress. Passengers then crawl up onto the flat surface, which is rigid and incapable of any nuances in recline (it’s binary: either flat or a chair, as you choose).

It slept well, though I found it nearly impossible to prop myself up to watch a movie (I was hoping to finish “Harper”).  Finally I gave up and drifted off to dreamland.

While I made an early morning trip to the head, the FAs unmade my bed without asking.  It was time for breakfast, so I didn’t complain.  Soon I had several more courses of the usual cold and hot breakfast items one expects in airplane front cabins.  By the time we touched down at LAX I was feeling sated and rested.  I had even managed to finish watching “Harper” while enjoying breakfast.

In summary, both Business and Premium Economy on Air New Zealand were excellent: comfortable, spacious enough, with service well done.  You can’t go wrong with either one, but if you want to stretch your dollars, I recommend the substantial comfort and spatial bump to PE above regular coach.  Usually that economy-to-PE fare difference won’t break the bank, and by comparison to Business fares, PE is a bargain.

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