Air New Zealand coy on plans to increase Premium Economy legroom on new Boeing 777-300ER

By John Walton, April 20 2011
Air New Zealand coy on plans to increase Premium Economy legroom on new Boeing 777-300ER

Is Air New Zealand looking to boost the amount of legroom for its Premium Economy Spaceseats on the carrier's brand new Boeing 777-300ER?

The rumours say yes, and an Air New Zealand spokesperson pointedly chose not to deny those rumours when speaking with Australian Business Traveller.

"We've heard those rumours too" the spokesperson admitted, but refused to be drawn on the airline's plans: "There are always rumours doing the rounds regarding what airlines are and aren’t planning to do and I’m afraid we don’t comment on rumours."

That won't dampen continued speculation that the airline is looking to remove one row of the seats in the 777-300ER's cabin, allowing the remaining rows can be spaced further apart and increasing legroom – the lack of which has attracted extensive criticism from the airline's premium passengers.

The issue is not with the design of the award-winning seats themselves but that they were created for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, for which the Kiwi flag-carrier has signed up as a launch customer.

After a series of delays to the 787, Air NZ opted to install the Spaceseats into its latest 777-300ER flagships -- but it's a tight squeeze.

Australian Business Traveller, some of Air New Zealand's elite frequent flyers and NZ media outlets have all observed issues with the practicality of the seats in the 777.

If you're lucky enough to score a bulkhead seat in the first row of the cabin (as we recommend), the legroom's just fine...

...but for the rest of the rows further back in the cabin, legroom is cramped by the seats in front.

However, Air New Zealand clearly remains defensive about the seats, one of its most-touted changes on the new planes.

"The new 777-300 aircraft has only been in operation for a few months" their spokesperson told Australian Business Traveller, "and the feedback we’ve received regarding the new seats has been overwhelmingly positive."

We're sure this is what Air New Zealand would like to believe, but many of its most frequent flyers have a different opinion.

Initial reaction to the seats was positive when they were demonstrated -- in a more spacious configuration -- at a launch event in Air NZ's top-secret Hangar 9 in Auckland. Australian Business Traveller was effusive in our praise for their innovative design.

But one of Air New Zealand's most frequent flyers, who goes by the online pseudonym "The Global Traveller", isn't a fan of the new Spaceseats as they've been put into the plane, saying: "I, like many others, gushed over the design at the launch.  Now, I take back some of the praise..."

This comment is from someone who's travelled on every route that Air New Zealand flies, and is a regular international traveller on a variety of airlines.

Australian Business Traveller has spoken with almost a dozen Air New Zealand Airpoints loyalty program members from various walks of life, who have compared the old Premium Economy cabin on the Boeing 747 and older 777-200ER. None of them preferred the new cabin, especially compared with the small and quiet Premium Economy cabins on the 747. 

Reviews of the seats on the FlyerTalk community website -- a gathering of the people who fly the most and know what's what -- are equally scathing, although the in-flight service and entertainment do come in for praise. 

One report reads: "I really wanted to like the seat, because of the marketing I'd read and seen about it. I had never visited Hangar 9 so I did not know what to expect, but I was sorely disappointed by it."

"The legroom is utterly pathetic and definitely worse than a domestic 733 [Boeing 737-300] in Space+ [Air New Zealand's extra legroom domestic economy section for frequent flyers], and I was overall uncomfortable on the flight."

Air New Zealand's responses to the criticism -- to passengers who complain and to Australian Business Traveller -- seems to suggest that the airline thinks it's a problem of passengers not knowing how to sit properly rather than a design flaw.

The airline wrote to one passenger: "We have listened and taken all the feedback we have received around leg room in Premium Economy. We are currently evaluating all feedback and are looking at many different options."

"As this is process is time consuming in the interim we have now placed in all seats on board the aircraft an information card with pictures and text which demonstrates the many different seating, sleeping and leg positions you can use which you would not get in a traditional seat."

"We are currently producing a short inflight video to demonstrate the best way to use the new space in Premium Economy to obtain the most comfortable sleep and seating positions."

Other frequent flyers have told us that they've received letters along similar lines.

Air New Zealand's intransigence over the Spaceseat legroom problem -- and the ultra high density 3-4-3 Economy cabin at the back of the plane -- is a real shame.

The airline used to be known for its spacious 34 inches of seat pitch for long-haul flights (compared with 31 inches on Qantas), and used to be a business traveller Economy class pick for that reason. Now, business travellers are scrambling to avoid the new planes wherever possible.

Australian Business Traveller will keep you up to date on developments. In the meantime, check out our top picks for the best seats in Premium Economy as it currently stands, or read up on our review of the Premium Economy Spaceseats.

You can also compare the airline's three classes on the plane for business trips and go behind the scenes to find out the top improvements of the 777-300ER over older planes.

John Walton

Aviation journalist and travel columnist John took his first long-haul flight when he was eight weeks old and hasn't looked back since. Well, except when facing rearwards in business class.

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