This report and press release from Air New Zealand about upgrading its Boeing 777-200ERs should be welcomed by some of its frequent flyers.
However, it is worth noting that while the airline touts it as an upgrade, it isn't an upgrade for everyone.
For a start, don't hold your breath. The airline is starting the upgrade process in early 2014, so there will be no sign of any change for nearly two years. It appears to be scheduled to match the arrival of the first Boeing 787 for the airline, which ought to be more interesting in itself.
This is a shame, because the aircraft have been looking increasingly tatty and substandard compared to the Boeing 777-300ER in the premium cabins. The time for a refit is now, but clearly the airline has timed its capex to be optimal, and let's be honest, it faces limited competitive pressure on any of its routes.
What routes will it affect?
A key point about the 777-200ER upgrade is that this confirms that Air NZ is not seeking to replace these planes with 787-9s as of yet. The 787s have been clearly earmarked as replacements for the Boeing 767s. Air NZ has also stated that the arrival of the 787s will enable retirement of the last 2 Boeing 747s, which at present are almost entirely dedicated to the Auckland-San Francisco route (occasionally covering Vancouver too). Although 10 787s have been ordered (and there are only 5 767s), it will be some time before enough arrive to do more than replace the 767s, so we can assume that the refurbished 777-200ERs will continue doing the job they do now, and (as they are larger than the 787s) replace the 747s on the San Francisco route.
Current 777-200ER routes are long haul routes:
Auckland-Hong Kong-London Heathrow
Auckland-San Francisco (some days)
Auckland-Los Angeles (NZ3/4 only)
and short haul some services Auckland-Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane and to Rarotonga and Nandi.
Air NZ has already stated it intends to put the new Boeing 787s on the routes to Asia first, so it is expected that this means Shanghai will shift to the 787, but Hong Kong may remain a 777 route, because it is a staging point through to London.
It's difficult to presume what routes refurbished 777s will first operate on, but I expect initially some short haul hops for crew familiarisation, then the priority will be NZ3/4 (so LA is serviced by a consistent product) and then through to Hong Kong/London.
What will be an upgrade?
The Panasonic eXlite entertainment system will be a significant leap forward, as the Rockwell Collins system currently on board dates back to 2004, and functions far more slowly than the systems on the Boeing 777-300ER or the Boeing 767s and Airbus A320s. This should mean more choice, less rebooting, a touch screen interface, the ability to order drinks and snacks through the system and, perhaps, on board internet access (although this hasn't been mentioned). Definitely a plus.
|Air NZ Business Premier 777-300ER|
Business Premier will be upgraded to the improved seats seen on the Boeing 777-300ER, which feature larger entertainment screens, softer sleeping surfaces, new decor and... that's about it really. It is a shame that the airline hasn't (or perhaps is not able to have) chosen the new Virgin Atlantic Upper Class hard product, which is wider and has deeper recline. Business Premier passengers should be happy with this upgrade, but it is no great game changer.
|Air NZ Premium Economy Spaceseat|
Premium Economy will be a significant leap forward. Currently, premium economy on the 777-200ER is inferior compared to the 777-300ER and the 747s. It consists of four rows of 3-3-3 sets of seats which are identical to the economy class ones in the back cabins, with the same seat width, but with double the recline and 9 inches more seat pitch. The extra recline is welcome as is the legroom, but this makes the current seats more like "Economy Plus" on United rather than a distinct premium product. Of course Air NZ also offers superior soft product, with better meals and drinks service, but some frequent flyers have commented that they wouldn't pay for premium economy on the 777-200ERs because there is no more elbow room.
|Current Air NZ premium economy on 777-200|
That will change. The new premium economy SpaceSeats will be in a 2-2-2 configuration, and so will offer more room sideways, about the same seat pitch and more comfortable seating than economy. However, it is fair to say that some don't like it because the recline is not significant and a bit fidgety. Yet I would wager that far more will be happy paying for a SpaceSeat than the current premium economy.
The introduction of the SkyCouch will be a positive option for some. Couples, parents with small children can find that the SkyCouch offers a reasonable option to stretch out in economy and have a more pleasant trip. It isn't much good for tall couples, but it is definitely positive as an option.
|Air NZ Economy Skycouch|
What wont be an upgrade?
Economy class wont be getting an upgrade in real terms, it would appear. The new Air NZ economy seats installed on the 777-300ER do have advantages over the existing ones, with the new tray table, larger entertainment screen, design of the seat pocket and armrests that fold all the way in. These are all positives. If you're a waif, you'll find it is an upgrade, but otherwise Air NZ is making the same step backward in passenger comfort on the 777-200ERs as it did with the 300ERs, by squeezing another seat into the row, narrowing the other seats and the aisles.
|10 abreast in Air NZ 777-300ER|
The 3-3-3 configuration will become 3-4-3. The effect of this will be to knock an inch off of the seat width, which is a negative, but also noticeable is the narrower aisles. For those who sit on the aisles (4 out of 10), this means being bumped and hit throughout the journey.
|Air NZ 777-200 in economy now 3-3-3 soon to be 3-4-3|
Air NZ has not stated the seat pitch in economy, which at present on the 777-200ERs is usually 31-32", the 777-300ERs have 33", which if necessary for the SkyCouch may mean a slight improvement if that is followed again.
Who does 3-4-3 on a 777?
Air NZ likes to spin that the 3-4-3 configuration is an industry norm. Well it isn't quite like that. A scan of Seatguru to look at major airlines with 777s demonstrates that.
Airlines with 3-3-3 in economy (or 2-5-2)
Aeromexico (34" seat pitch)
Air Canada (32")
Air China (32-34")
Air India (33")
Air NZ (31-32" 777-200ER)
Air NZ (31-32" 777-200ER)
American (32" 777-200ER)
ANA (31" 777-300ER)
Cathay Pacific (32")
El Al (32")
El Al (32")
JAL (31" all but 777-200 domestic)
Jet Airways (32")
Kenya Airways (32")
KLM (31" 777-200ER)
Royal Brunei (32-34")
Singapore Airlines (32-34")
Virgin Australia (32")
Airlines with 3-4-3 in economy
Air France (32")
Air NZ (33" 777-300ER)
American (31" 777-300ER)
ANA (32" domestic 777-300 only)
China Southern (32")
JAL (31" 777-200 domestic only)
KLM (31" 777-300ER)
No need to get excited, but for Business Premier and Premium Economy customers, it looks pretty good. It is good also if you are likely to want to choose the SkyCouch. However, for conventional economy class passengers it will be more of a crush, as there will be more of you, with less seat width. Of course on most of the routes these planes will fly, there wont be an alternative.