Hawke's Bay Today sports editor Anendra Singh rates the service on his Aircalin return leg from Noumea, New Caledonia, to Auckland International:
• The plane: An attractive Airbus A320 on the way back to Auckland from New Caledonia. Aircalin operates services in conjunction with Air New Zealand.
• Class: Hibiscus (business) with eight seats allocated on the 158-seater aircraft. Check-in counter staff at the ample La Tontouta International Airport upgrade me. A tinge of sadness creeps in when I am unable to convince them to upgrade my freelance Kiwi colleague, Ocean Belcher, despite a bloke phoning his superiors. "Just smuggle me some food at the back," photo journalist Belcher says with a wry smile, gamely nestling into the first row, middle seat of the economy class on my flank before the pleated clipped curtains separate us.
• Seat: 1D, aisle front seat with enough space to do leg curls and no one trying to recline their seat in your face. The only female flight attendant, every strand of hair tucked into place, informs me I have the entire elite, four-seat-cluster room to myself so the window is mine if I so desire.
• Flight time: 2h 30m duration with the Airbus wheels clipping the tarmac on time but the chute does not open at Auckland International until almost five minutes after the umbilical cord hook-up.
• Fellow passengers: A cursory glance on the other side reveals two laptop-toting business types in slacks and long-sleeved shirts. One of the two islanders behind them has tucked himself under a blanky for a nap (How do they do it in the engine drone and turbulence?). Economy class is bursting at the seams.
• Service: Fantastic. The young male flight attendant even kneels on a knee to deliver. The only hiccup — they forget to hand me an immigration form but it's hardly a biggie.
• Entertainment: Downloading the Aircalin player application to tablet/phones (economy) and the offer of an IPad tablet to business class isn't my idea of fun but, no doubt, those inclined will love that. I had had a gutsful trying to connect digitally at the island hotels. I read the inflight magazine/pamphlet again, which understandably makes more sense than on the way up. I yearn for a copy of the New Zealand Herald, even a day or two old but, alas, they only have French fare. But a short, sweet flight like that is an opportune time to reminisce on unforgettable moments in the island nation.
• Food and drink: Steaming towels come with the promise of a choice of omelette or pineapple/coconut pancake as the mains. Yoghurt, French pastries and fresh fruit but, regrettably, no gluten-free bread. The elegant one apologises for not having a low-fat dairy or non-dairy milks. Green tea? Yeah baby.
• Toilets: The smells, sound (similar to when the dentist's assistant sucks up the fragments from your open mouth) and claustrophobic space do not appeal to me on any aircraft. Mercifully I have trained my bladder to hang in there for three hours.
• Airport experience: On the way to La Tontouta, Aircalin staff were great but forgot to tell me my untagged black suitcase has a red "priority" sticker. I let the suitcase go on the carousel about six rounds before finding the courage to yank it off for a check. I have no qualms on the way back. At La Tontouta, no one mentions I could chill at the white sand, wood-toned Hibiscus lounge. New Caledonian immigration is the most relaxed I've come across anywhere.
• Frankly speaking: Many will agree the feel of aircraft wheels on tarmac trumps all qualms. I juxtapose it with our 25-minute return flight to Noumea domestic airport from Isle of Pines. The ATR 72-600 had touched down in a mighty rush and clashing of brakes. It didn't help soothe the jangled nerves when we were told before a United Airlines Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, bound for Los Angeles from Melbourne, had made an emergency landing at La Tontouta the night before. Aircalin certainly gets my vote on its international leg.
• GETTING THERE: Aircalin flies direct from Auckland to Noumea.
• ONLINE: newcaledonia.travel