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Friendly fifth freedom: A review of Air New Zealand's 777-300ER in premium economy, LAX to London

Nov. 29, 2019
23 min read
Friendly fifth freedom: A review of Air New Zealand's 777-300ER in premium economy, LAX to London
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[tpg_rating ticket-class="premium-economy" tpg-rating-score="83" ground-experience="8" cabin-seat="25" amens-ife="24" food-bev="16" service="10" pros="Friendly service, comfortable seat with great pitch, excellent meals, modern IFE and orderly boarding." cons="Lack of storage at seats, no Wi-Fi, headrest wasn't supportive, footrest wasn't stable, and pillow was too large to use." /]

Fifth-freedom routes -- routes operated by an airline between two foreign countries as a part of services connecting the airline's own country -- mean you can fly some airlines on unexpected routes. Air New Zealand currently operates such a route between Los Angeles and London Heathrow.

I recently got to fly Air New Zealand in premium economy on the carrier's once-daily route from LAX to LHR. Although Air New Zealand will discontinue this fifth-freedom route in 2020, the airline will still fly its 777-300ER on other long-haul flights between Auckland (AKL) and the U.S. Here's what it was like to fly in premium economy on Air New Zealand's 777-300ER from LAX to LHR.


I was waiting for award availability to open up for another review flight as well as my passport to be returned after a visa application, so we ended up not booking this flight until two days before departure. Since I was returning on a different review flight, we booked a one-way ticket from Los Angeles to London Heathrow in premium economy on Air New Zealand and from LHR to Abu Dhabi (AUH) in economy on Etihad.

Related: 3 reasons to fly premium economy (and 1 reason not to)

As you can imagine, this ticket wasn't cheap at $2,016. However, if you plan ahead, you can book LAX to LHR in premium economy on Air New Zealand for a little as $749 one-way or $1,338 round-trip.

Or you can try to book an award. But doing so can be difficult, since premium economy awards are only bookable with some loyalty programs. However, you can use 37,500 Aeroplan miles to book a one-way flight from LAX to LHR, which TPG values at $563. You can get Aeroplan miles by transferring American Express Membership Rewards points, Marriott Bonvoy points or Capital One miles. But be sure to check availability before transferring.

Related: A guide to earning transferable points

I was originally assigned a middle seat, and there were no other seats available. But once I added my Asiana loyalty number to the reservation I could select Frequent Flyer seats and Preferred Seats, which would've cost $50 previously, without charge. I changed my seat to 26D, an aisle seat in the middle section.

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[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Ground Experience" tpg-rating="8" tpg-rating-max="10" tail="ZK-OKM" departure="16" departure-2="45" duration="9" duration-2="56" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]

I tried to check in online, but the process repeatedly failed. As I learned when I reached the airport, this was because I was traveling on a one-way ticket and an agent needed to verify that I had a flight departing the United Arab Emirates.

Air New Zealand departs from LAX's Tom Bradley International Terminal. There are plenty of kiosks throughout the check-in area that support many airlines, including 12 kiosks next to the Air New Zealand check-in counters. I attempted to check in at a kiosk but was directed to see an agent after the kiosk printed a bag tag.

There were two queues to see agents: one for online check-in and baggage drop and a second for business premier, premium economy and elites. The premium economy queue was empty, and an agent smiled at me as I walked toward her through this queue.

She greeted me with a friendly "kia ora" and then went through all the formalities, including looking at my American Airlines app to confirm my return flight, before providing instructions for clearing security and reaching the gate. Air New Zealand doesn't participate in TSA PreCheck, so I had to go through normal security. Even so, security only took 12 minutes.

Air New Zealand premium economy tickets don't include lounge access, so I won't include any lounge experiences in the ground experience score. But if you have a Priority Pass membership, you'll want to consider visiting one or more of the lounges available at LAX.

Related: Choose this, not that: LAX Priority Pass lounge edition

I stopped by the KAL Lounge since it was in Tom Bradley International Terminal. The lounge wasn't crowded and offered lots of seating with power. However, the Wi-Fi was slow, with a 0.53 Mbps download speed and 5.29 Mbps upload speed.

There were a couple hot food options, cold options including sushi and fruits and freeze-dried noodles. The showers were closed for renovations, though. You can check our our full review of the KAL Lounge for more details about the lounge.

I also visited the Star Alliance business-class lounge, which I could access as a Star Alliance Gold member through status with Asiana. If you have access, the Star Alliance business-class lounge is much better than the KAL lounge, since it provides higher-quality dining options, shower suites and an outdoor patio. And the Wi-Fi is much faster, with a 127 Mbps download speed and 149 Mbps upload speed.

I headed to the gate shortly before boarding was scheduled to begin and was pleasantly surprised to see most passengers were still seated in the gate area. The gate area appeared clean, and there was enough power and seating in the gate area for the passengers traveling on this flight.

Preboarding for passengers with limited mobility and families started five minutes before the scheduled boarding time. Some passengers began to queue at this point, but boarding was relatively well-organized. Business-class passengers and Star Alliance Gold elites were called to board nine minutes after preboarding began. I boarded at this point, so I can't say how the remainder of the boarding process went.

[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Cabin and Seat" tpg-rating="25" tpg-rating-max="30" configuration="2" configuration-2="4" configuration-3="2" width="19.5" pitch="41.5" tray="19" tray-2="10" lavs="2" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]

Air New Zealand's 777-300ER features a 2-4-2 premium economy cabin.

Each premium economy seat is 19.5 inches wide.

The pitch between rows is 41.5 inches, which allows enough space for you to slide past your neighbor when the seat in front of your neighbor isn't reclined.

The recliner-style seats are covered in leather, and are particularly comfortable in the upright position. There's ample lumbar support, which I enjoyed but some passengers might find to be a bit much.

There are two buttons on the armrest -- the forward button deploys the legrest while the rear button reclines the seat.

I measured my seat recline -- the difference in pitch when the seat is fully upright versus fully reclined -- at 7 inches. Even when the passenger ahead of me fully reclined, I was able to work comfortably with my laptop on the tray table.

The legrest didn't fully extend automatically, but you could pull on it while pushing the button and it would fully extend. The footrest extended from the legrest instead of being attached to the seat ahead of you. You could fold out the footrest and then use a lever on the legrest to set the height of the footrest. This type of footrest could be good, as shorter passengers could adjust the footrest to fit their needs. But my footrest wasn't particularly effective, because it would lower itself when I rested my feet on it.

Each seat had a single seatback pocket. There was a safety card and motion sickness bag in the pocket, but no other material. I was able to store my laptop in this pocket, but this meant there wasn't room for anything else. And since these seats didn't have a hard shell, you could feel when the passenger behind you added or removed items from the pocket. Luckily, the items the passenger behind me put in the pocket weren't uncomfortable.

Although seat supports and inflight-entertainment boxes were located under the seats, there was ample under-seat space for personal items and legroom. Plus, the overhead bins were large enough that most passengers could stow their personal items and carry-on items overhead.

There was a large headrest on every seat that could be raised to support taller passengers. The headrest had wings to support your head while sleeping, but these wings were spaced far apart, so they didn't provide adequate support without you bending your neck or leaning your body.

The tray table extended from the armrest. The table came out in bifold form, and there was a cup divot in this form.

There was no cup divot when you opened the tray table completely, but the 10-inch-by-19-inch table was large enough to easily hold a drink and my laptop. The tray table could slide forward by about 3 inches. There was also a 4-inch-by-5.25-inch shared table between each pair of seats, but it was too small to hold two glasses.

The bulkhead seats had the same legrest and footrest as the other premium economy seats, but they also had an IFE screen that extended from the armrest.

At the back of the premium economy cabin, there were two lavatories. The premium economy cabin was curtained off from both business class and economy, so these lavatories were mostly used by premium economy passengers. There were no special amenities, but they felt modern, and the flight attendants kept them well-stocked and clean throughout the flight.

One special aspect of the lavatories was a wall depicting a bookshelf. This design made the lavatory feel more spacious, and the titles were entertaining to read.

[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Amenities and IFE" tpg-rating="24" tpg-rating-max="30" screen="11" live-tv="No" tailcam="No" headphones="Yes" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]

At boarding, each seat was stocked with a full-size pillow, blanket, amenity kit and bottle of water.

The pillow was too large to use as it was designed, so I resorted to hugging it while sleeping. Most other passengers I noticed weren't using the pillow at all. The blanket, on the other hand, was soft, warm and large enough to cover my entire body.

The amenity kit came in a bright, padded zip-top bag.

Instead of using plastic, the dental kit and earplugs were contained in waxy paper bags. The amenity kit included an eye mask, socks, dental kit with toothbrush and 5-gram Colgate toothpaste, Ashley & Co intensive lip balm, earplugs and a pen.

There was a crisp, 9.- inch-by-5.5-inch IFE screen on the back of each seat. The screen could tilt, so you can still see it clearly when the passenger ahead of you reclined.

You could control the IFE system by using the touchscreen or the remote near your thigh. I found the touchscreen responsive, so I didn't need to use the remote.

The IFE system was straightforward to use, and there wasn't any lag or other issues. There were plenty of movies and television shows, including various recent options.

The IFE system was sorted by genre, and many genres overlapped, so I wasn't able to get an accurate count of how many movies and television shows were available. But I can confidently say there were at least 200 movies and 300 television shows.

After you selected your language on the IFE system, you saw a message asking if you wanted to watch a short video about your seat. I chose to watch the video and found it informative and mildly humorous.

The safety video was also pretty entertaining, especially since it included a robot I've programmed in the past:

A flight map on the IFE system allowed you to watch looping maps and information, or you could select particular views or information.

The IFE system included an impressive selection of music albums from various genres. There were also multiple relaxation tracks, including a sleep companion.

There was also a variety of applications, including duty-free wine and merchandise for purchase, a chat function, a screen-share function and a general knowledge quiz to play with travel companions. There was no live TV, streaming entertainment or tail camera.

You could plug your personal headphones into a jack under the IFE screen or plug in the provided headphones to a jack above the remote near your thigh.

The provided headphones only had branding for Air New Zealand. The headphones were light and seemed inexpensive, but they fit well and provided decent sound.

Each seat had a USB outlet under the IFE screen. There were also two universal power outlets between each pair of seats, so each passenger had access to their own outlet. The USB outlet and power outlet both worked well, and the power outlet had a twist-to-lock feature, so my plug didn't fall out accidentally.

Air New Zealand is currently installing Wi-Fi on their 777-200 and 777-300 aircraft, but my particular aircraft did not have Wi-Fi yet. You can check in the Air New Zealand app up to five days before your flight to see if your aircraft will offer Wi-Fi.

[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Food and Beverage" tpg-rating="16" tpg-rating-max="20" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-meal="2" comp-alcohol="Yes" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]

Before departure, warm towels and menus were handed out, but no predeparture beverage was offered.

The first beverage service occurred 25 minutes after takeoff. Although no specific drink options were provided in the menu, four Thornbury Hawkes Bay New Zealand wines -- merlot, pinot noir, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc -- as well as Johnny Walker Red scotch, Havana Club rum, Smirnoff vodka and Dulcet New Zealand sparking wine were displayed on top of the beverage cart. Various New Zealand and international beers were available upon request, as were many types of juices, sodas and tea.

Dinner service began 55 minutes after takeoff and reached my row, the fourth in the middle section, 12 minutes later. Only one flight attendant was manning the cart, and she spent ample time with each passenger to provide drink refills, food service and bread service.

For dinner, there was a choice of braised lamb shank with soft rosemary polenta, aubergine with capers and pine nuts; Canadian steelhead salmon with peperonata, olive oil mashed potatoes, fennel and spinach compote; and wood-roasted chicken breast with honey roast parsnips and heritage carrots

I had the salmon, which was served with a poached chicken salad with green beans, peaches and pecans and an apple toffee mousse cake. I had a choice of wholemeal rolls or garlic bread, and got the garlic bread. I was pleased when a second round of bread, as well as wine top-ups, midway though the meal.

The departure meal was presented well, with ceramic plates, metal cutlery and glass cups. The salmon was moist, and the pesto topping added to the taste. The chicken salad appetizer was nicely complemented by the dried peaches and pecans. And the garlic bread, although cold, was soft, buttery and garlicky.

Between meals, there was a snack basket in the galley. And every time I visited the galley, one of the dedicated premium economy flight attendants was stationed in the galley, ready to provide a drink of my choice or simply chat.

Breakfast must have been served quietly, as I didn't wake up until most passengers had been served. Shortly after I woke up, a flight attendant noticed and came over to ask whether I wanted breakfast. I said yes, so she brought the breakfast cart back to my seat. I had to choose between two meals: black-bean-and-scrambled-egg-filled wheat quesadilla with linguica and tomatillo sauce or apple, banana and buckwheat pancakes with berry compote and sweet syrup.

My pancakes were served with a fruit plate, yogurt and a croissant. The fruit was fresh, but the pancakes were the true surprise. They were fluffy and not at all soggy, which was unexpected considering they'd been reheated on board.

I appreciated the ceramic mugs and glass cups throughout the entire flight. It felt more premium, and is better for the environment, than disposable alternatives.

[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Service" tpg-rating="10" tpg-rating-max="10" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" blurb="From check-in to gate agents to the flight attendants on board, the Air New Zealand staff were consistently and genuinely friendly yet professional. This flight set a new high bar for me when it comes to premium economy service." /]

From check-in to deplaning, the Air New Zealand representatives and employees were excellent. My first interaction with an Air New Zealand representative was checking my bag in LAX, where I was greeted with a friendly "kia ora" ("be healthy" or "live well," a Maori greeting) and had a pleasant check-in experience. During boarding, multiple staff happily greeted me at passport check, on the ramp, at the door to the aircraft and as I made my way to my seat. And shortly after boarding, one of the two dedicated premium economy flight attendants came though the cabin and introduced herself and her colleague to each passenger individually.

Kay and Mike, the two dedicated flight attendants working in the Premium Economy cabin on my flight, did an excellent job of being friendly, personable and approachable while also being professional and efficient. They proactively offered drink refills during meal services and responded to passenger call buttons in about two seconds. Plus, unlike some flights where I feel like I'm intruding when I wander into the galley for a snack or drink, I was welcomed and had an interesting conversation while enjoying a snack. Especially in a cabin class where service is often lacking, I couldn't have asked for better service from start to finish on this flight.

Overall impression

The friendly service is the most memorable part of this flight for me, but the excellent food, comfortable seats and generous pitch are certainly reasons I'd want to fly Air New Zealand's premium economy product again.

Air New Zealand can definitely improve the product, though. The lack of Wi-Fi is being addressed as the airline works to add Wi-Fi to all of its long-haul 777-200 and 777-300 aircraft. Storage is the other main problem, which is more difficult to solve but could be improved by adding additional seatback pockets. But, overall, Air New Zealand provides a competitive premium economy product.

If you're sold on flying Air New Zealand but looking for a lie-flat experience, be sure to check out TPG's other reviews of long-haul Air New Zealand flights.

All photos are by the author.