One of the perks of being a tech journalist living in a small country at the very ends of the earth is that I occasionally get to hop aboard a plane and travel to somewhere to write about gadgets.

On a recent geeky junket I decided not to miss an opportunity and decided to kill several birds with a single stone and cashed in a pile of soon to expire airpoints to fly business class so I could review Air NZ's in-flight technology aboard its long-haul aircraft.

Climbing aboard NZ8 to San Francisco, the first clue that something was different was the business class seating arrangements. Where most airlines operate business class seating in a traditional side-by-side configuration, Air New Zealand's face outwards diagonally into the aisle.

Calling them seats is a little misleading as they more closely resemble pod-like creations off of a Star Trek set. On each pod there was a bunch of blue illuminated buttons, with each one hinting at all sorts of high tech functionality.

After reading the manual (yep, each pod has its own user guide) I discovered that amongst other features, the seats are fully servo-controlled and fold out into a flat, fully fledged sky-bed.

Seats that do a Transformers act to become beds may be nothing new, but Air New Zealand has taken things to a whole new level by allowing theirs to fold out completely flat.

This might sound trivial, but as any long haul traveller will attest, this is no minor matter. Sleeping in cattle class is impossible (Note to airlines - surely bunks would allow the same number of people to be crammed into economy in considerably more comfort?) and the business seats of most other airlines tend to slope, which also makes sleep tricky.

High-tech seating pods are only a warm up act for the other gadgetry goodness Air New Zealand have crammed aboard their planes. Where most airlines use harsh fluorescent lighting that after 12-plus hours in dry airplane air can wreak havoc with jet lagged and sleep deprived peepers, Air New Zealand has installed a more forgiving LED mood lighting system in their business cabin that's able to reproduce life-like dusk, dawn, daylight and evening lighting environments.

Not only was this easier on my fatigued eyes, but theory has it that it can also reduce jetlag by fooling one's body clock by emulating night and day. Did it work?

It's hard to tell, having managed to crash for five of the 11 hours of my flight to San Francisco, I definitely felt significantly less jetlagged than with previous flights of similar durations in the airborne Hell otherwise known as economy.

This said, how much of this is attributable to mood lighting is hard to prove. Either way, I managed to get a full day's retail therapy after my arrival into the US before needing to visit the land of nod.

The single most useful gadget aboard Air NZ's 777s and 747s, however, is the in-flight power system which is available on all business class and premium economy seating.

Supplying juice to laptops, iPods and other gadgets, in-flight power allows them to stay functional throughout the duration of the entire flight. Unlike other earlier in-flight power implementations, Air NZ's system doesn't require you buy any costly adaptors and can take standard Australasian, US and European power plugs. Simply plug and go, what's not to like?

Other big news is the in-flight entertainment system. Where travellers used to have to settle for creaky, ultra low-fi in flight movies delivered off worn out video tapes, Air New Zealand has installed a fully digital in flight entertainment (IFE) system from Rockwell-Collins and audio from Kiwi company Phitek. The system can deliver movies, TV shows, games and music digitally across all seating classes.

Over 85 new movie releases, as well as classic and kids movies plus 220 Television programmes, 240 CD's (that's around 3,500 music tracks), 23 custom produced radio shows, five audio books as well as 20 games are all stored on Microsoft-powered servers and are streamed a positively zippy 7.5 Gbps over several kilometres of high speed Ethernet cable to screens in each seat.

Older analogue tape based systems delivered shoddy video and scratchy audio, and you had no choice of when you could watch it. Thankfully the current system delivers the goods digitally producing near-DVD quality video with you picking your content from a thumb-nail view and plot synopsis for each music track, TV show, game and movie available.

Content can be started when you want it and can also be fast-forwarded, paused or reversed, so missing the key part of a gripping movie thanks to lame in-flight announcements - thankfully Macarena-free on Air NZ - is now a thing of the past.

The in flight nerdfest doesn't stop with video either. Air NZ has used active noise cancellation system supplied by local noise cancelling gurus, Phitek. Using cutting-edge noise cancellation technology delivers big improvements to in-flight audio.

Movie soundtracks and music that sounded as if it'd been recorded in an airport rest room was replaced with crisp clean audio. Using the supplied Air New Zealand-branded Phitek noise cancelling headphones also saw in flight noise such as droning jet engines and whining kids fade to a barely audible whisper.

While dazzled by business class technology gee-whiz, I only had so many airpoints to spare, so flew back to New Zealand slumming it in premium economy. It wasn't easy without the business class flat bed goodness, but both the digital in-flight entertainment and in-flight power system was available, almost making for a pleasantly bearable long haul trip back home.

Tech enough?

Until now, long haul flying has been something I've always put right up there with DIY cranial lobotomies. Travelling for a minimum of 8-12 hours in cramped seating that'd get most other businesses prosecuted for animal cruelty is one thing, but crapulent non-interactive in-flight video and shoddy audio added insult to injury.

By deploying a state of the art in flight entertainment system, in seat power and a slew of other funky in-flight tech such as mood lighting, Air NZ has managed to make long haul travel a bearable proposition.

The future of in-flight entertainment

If all this in-flight gadgetry sounds amazing, you'll be stunned at some of the really cool in-flight tech on the radar for commercial release in the near future.

Broadband: Several companies including Boeing and AirCell are experimenting with in-flight broadband which will let travellers use wireless capable laptop PCs and PDAs for web surfing, email or even video conferencing at broadband speeds of up to 15Mbps. US airlines including Delta, American Airlines, Virgin America and Southwest Airlines have all either begun to offer in flight broadband or are about to launch and prices start at around US$9.95 for flights three hours or less and $12.95 for longer flights. Given the lack of tray table space on domestic flights in NZ, not to mention the steep pricing, the jury's still out on whether in flight broadband will fly (pun intended) with NZ airlines.

Cell Phones: While cell phones and PDAs with flight mode enabled can now be used on planes, several airlines have begun to allow cell phones to be used for making calls and sending SMS. This is done using a micro cell site inside the aircraft which connects to a phone network typically via a satellite uplink. Indications are that it won't be cheap and I for one hope it never makes it to New Zealand, as the last thing any jet-lagged traveller needs is some idiot next to them shouting into their cellphones for hours on end.

Live TV: Got to catch up with friends or family overseas? Worried about missing that episode of Desperate Housewives? Worry no more. US Airline, Jet Blue, is rigging external satellite antennas onto their Airbus A320 fleets and delivering pay-per-view live TV content directly to seat back screens. Empty flights during tests matches could soon be a thing of the past.