Air New Zealand will rely on Portuguese charter operator Hi Fly to plug gaps across the Tasman for the next five weeks while engines on some Dreamliners are repaired. Herald Business Traveller flew from Sydney to Auckland on NZ 108, one of Hi Fly's A340s. Here's the verdict.
Lisbon-based Hi Fly is a private company that wet-leases (supplies aircraft, crew, maintenance and insurance) to airlines around the world. It operates one A321, five A330s and five A340s. Hi Fly is growing to meet a rising demand from airlines such as Air New Zealand's unexpected engine repairs, cover for VIP and military missions, seasonal additional capacity needs from established airlines and flights in support of peace-keeping forces. It says it "provides an excellent product at competitive rates".
In advice to travellers who are on Hi Fly, Air New Zealand says that it takes the safety of customers, its people and aircraft "extremely seriously" and its operational integrity and engineering teams had been involved in sourcing the planes right through to their entry into service. "Hi Fly is a highly regarded European leasing company with a very good safety record."
When the Airbus A340-300 that became 9H-FOX first flew, Sean Fitzpatrick was captain of the All Blacks and Jim Bolger was still prime minister.
That was July, 1997. Air New Zealand has chartered two of these planes and there have been reliability issues (one leading to an 18-hour delay before Christmas) but this flight got away just a few minutes late and was one of the smoother flights across the Tasman I can recall. The landing was glass smooth and we touched down in Auckland 15 minutes early. The average age of Air NZ's total fleet is 7.1 years so the leased plane is very much an outlier.
The twin aisle plane's age is reflected inside. It's worn in places but was clean and tidy. This plane spent most of its life (13 years) as an Emirates plane and the seats and styling reflect this. The 213 Economy seats had distinctive Emirates cloth covering, leather for the 42 Business Class seats (sold as Air NZ Premium Economy) and 12 First Class (sold as Air NZ Business Premier).
Economy seats are arranged in 2-4-2 configuration. I spent nearly half the flight in Economy in 35C on the aisle side of a window pair. This was a good spot - if possible avoid the block in the middle. Seats in Economy have a standard 32 inch (81.2cm) to 33 inch pitch. (the distance between the back of your seat and the back of the seat in front) They're a bit rattly but comfy enough.
I was able to join a colleague in what was a classic, old-style Emirates First Class in 2D for the remainder of the flight. Plenty of gold trim and walnut veneer. The First Class cabin is forward of the entry door so you don't get to see it when entering the plane. It was a journey into another age, the cabin was huge for the number of seats in a 2-2-2 configuration and the pitch is enormous, 89 inches or 2.2m.
There would be room to do a forward roll between them if you wanted. Emirates was a pioneer in laying on the glitz in premium cabins and the seat reflects this.
It's an early shell-type model with plenty of control over how you want it. It goes to near-horizontal with the feel of a La-Z-Boy recliner rocker . We were in the middle but if you're on a seat by the window you get up to four of them.
Modern premium cabins emphasise privacy but upfront in Hi Fly there are no suites or other furniture cluttering the space. This seat was installed three years before the first iPhone came out so forget the USB plugs. Fine for a short flight.
I was fed up front. It was fine but served on plastic plates with plastic cutlery.
Air NZ advises that only the Works product is available for purchase on Hi Fly flights meaning everyone will be offered an inflight meal and drinks service.
''Galley facilities on the leased aircraft, including the ovens, storage and refrigeration, are not the same as those on our own aircraft, the meal service will differ to what our customers would usually experience on Air New Zealand operated flights.''
In other words prepare for disappointment. For Auckland–Sydney passengers who have requested special meals, the airline warns it is not able to honour all requests on the Hi Fly services. In Business Premier and Premium Economy it does have vegetarian, gluten free and children's meals but says no special meals would be available in Economy, although one of the food options will cater for vegetarians.
On the Auckland–Perth services it will be able to offer our normal Air New Zealand meal.
This prompted the most complaints from around the Economy cabin. It's from yesteryear, a selection of movies play on small seat-back screens and there's no pausing them.
One was apparently in German. The setup was a bit ropey. Air New Zealand does warn, with understatement, that it is different from the entertainment that is offered on Air New Zealand aircraft. There's no in-seat power so passengers are advised to bring a charged up device or a book.
Hi Fly crew operate the plane as Air NZ crew are not certified for the plane. The cabin crew are Portuguese while technical crew, the pilots, come from around Europe. Three Air New Zealand "ambassadors" were on board to help out too and this worked well sharing the announcements. The Portuguese ran through the safety announcements while the Air New Zealand team, led by Emma, welcomed passengers on board and explained why the Hi Fly plane had been brought in.
(Thousands of passengers had flights delayed or cancelled before the Portuguese arrived.) Air New Zealand put on a barbecue for the 100 Hi Fly staff when they arrived and provided "buddies" for them to make them feel welcome.
They're staying at a decent hotel. They're the real nomads of the highly mobile airline industry whose assignments take them into war zones that are tough. By all accounts they are enjoying their New Zealand posting. It's reflected on board - they were a happy, helpful crew.
In First Class (Business Premier) nostalgia value goes some way to make up for what you're missing in a Dreamliner. At the back, you best BYO entertainment.