Trans-Tasman travellers on Air New Zealand could be in for a pleasant surprise in the coming weeks: the airline will replace its ageing Boeing 767s with world-first 787-9 Dreamliners on select days ahead of the start of regularly scheduled flights between Auckland and Perth on October 15.
Air NZ chief financial officer Rob McDonald said plenty of proving flights between New Zealand and Australia's east coast were planned.
"There is a lot of learning for the company on how we operate an aircraft like this," he said of the stretch version of the Dreamliner. "It is very different from what we are used to."
Like the 787-8s flown by Jetstar International, Air India and Royal Brunei Airlines to Australia, the Air NZ aircraft will feature larger windows, more spacious cabin bins, a lower cabin altitude and higher cabin humidity.
Air NZ has also used the introduction of the Dreamliner as an opportunity to revamp its economy and premium economy seating. It has chosen to stick with the same fully-flat business seats it already offers on long-haul flights.
The premium economy seats chosen by Air NZ are more traditional than its unique hard white shell Spaceseats offered on its 777-300 fleet. The 787-9 premium economy seats are the same basic model used by Cathay Pacific but modified in certain ways. As an example, all of the seats will have footrests, not just the first row of the cabin.
Air NZ program director Kerry Reeves said the primary reason the new seats had been chosen rather than the Spaceseat was the routes being flown by the Dreamliner.
"This aircraft is replacing 767s on [trans-Tasman] and Asian flying," he said. "And premium economy is either a product that we don't sell on short haul or in the Asian market, it is a very emerging product. That market doesn't value the Spaceseat space and experience you get. So therefore we thought we needed to develop something more appropriate to that market."
But he also added the Spaceseat appeared to have been "ahead of its time" and many passengers had been confused about how to use it properly. He said an in-flight video would be introduced in addition to a card already in place.
The new premium economy seats feature a 41-inch (104cm) pitch, a 9-inch (23cm) recline and a width of 19.3 inches (49cm).
In the new economy cabin, which like premium economy will be retrofitted on its fleet of 777-200s as well, the seats have been customised extensively by Air NZ.
Rather than having a very straight seat back, they have been reclined by 1 inch in the upright position following passenger research which showed that was more comfortable. Air NZ has also introduced a movable entertainment screen to aid viewing when the seat in front is reclined, a new headrest and additional padding for better lumbar support. The airline's innovative economy Skycouches, which offer an option for three seats to be converted into a flat bed surface, is also available on the aircraft.
The Air NZ 787, like Jetstar and United Airlines, is configured as 9-abreast in economy rather than the 8-abreast originally recommended by Boeing. That means the seat width is a slim 17.2 inches, while the pitch ranges from 31 to 33 inches depending on whether the seat is in a Skycouch section or another part of the cabin.
Mr McDonald said he was not concerned that the 9-abreast configuration could turn off passengers.
"We are flying this for tourism markets," he said. "And three classes gives a good choice. I think you will see once you get on board that 9-abreast looks just fine."
The reporter travelled to Seattle as a guest of Air New Zealand and Boeing.