To end the travel year I have a jumble of trips. Hopefully there is something of interest for all.
There are flights in a range of cabins, airlines, aircraft types and configurations. My trademark connections in wierd places - and yes some of these will be in the middle of the night again to add to the potential for a major headache. Add in some full flights (including one which has intriguingly switched to a 3-class aircraft but still sold as 2-class), my tight itinerary with limited options to change, the usual airline schedule change issues that comes with making bookings a long way in advance, and some potential strikes along the way.
If it all works as planned I'll be stunned. At the very least there will be some unusual flights not previously included in a FT trip report.
A week on the ground seems ages, so a few weeks feels like eternity. I feel the skies calling me and so it is nearly time to move onward. What better way to get back in the air than to celebrate an inaugural flight?
I like inaugurals. You never know quite what to expect. This will be my 13th inaugural flight (across 3 different airlines) and my 6th with this airline. Some make a big deal with festivities before departure and onboard, others are more low key. Some I've celebrated with other FTers while others I've flown alone.
A few months ago this new route was announced with an initial schedule over the summer. Personally I think the route was launched for tactical reasons and will not last, so I was in 2 minds whether or not to book the inaugural. When I saw how quickly space was disappearing on the inaugural flight within hours of the announcement I made a decision to book now before I miss out.
Due to a website glitch I was unable to complete the booking online. The first agent I spoke with was very unhelpful (told me I was imagining the glitch and to just keep trying) but when I tried again the second one was a gem, sorted me out and also saw for herself the glitch is real. She got my hopes up briefly when she said she had to check the guest list to make sure I wasn't already invited along on the inaugural flight, but of course I was not. So about 5 hours after the route was announced I had a ticket for the first flight.
Or rather, the second flight. For this route is a rarity. Due to aircraft scheduling requirements the first flight is towards the airline's home country, not the usual away direction (this isn't the only reason the route is odd - more on this later). I looked into both options and due to my need for same day connecting flights in both directions and an important meeting next day I opted for the "safer" routing. Neither option is particularly good, but in one direction with 1 hour transit I feel the risk is lower than the other direction despite the longer transit time, once I factor in the chances of the onward flight being held for a while if required. I also noticed one other advantage from the schedules - there is a 50% chance the onward flight will be the same aircraft in the direction I have booked, 0% chance in the other direction.
AUCKLAND to ROTORUA (AKL-ROT) on Air New Zealand Beech 1900D in economy class
I arrived at the lounge early enough to check some messages and keep an eye out for weather issues in case I needed to rearrange my travel. A front was moving across the island with high humidity, claggy low cloud and rain. I'd deliberately booked the earlier of 2 flights as a precaution in case of weather issues, but of course I hoped it would be unneccessary to make changes.
Leading up to our boarding time I noticed the departure screen was showing no gate for the flight. From past experience, this is not a good sign. Our boarding call was not made at the usual time. Another bad sign. I noticed a flight that had just landed at Rotorua had spent 20 minutes circling before landing. Good that it landed, but an indication the weather in Rotorua was marginal for the airport.
I pondered what other possibilities there were - later flight, fly to Taupo and drive (nope - no suitable flight), fly to Whakatane and drive (nope - flight is just boarding so no time to switch), fly to Tauranga and drive. As I did so the flight was announced for boarding, followed by a final call a minute later (while I was still making my way to the gate at the far end of the terminal) and a "other passengers are waiting for you" call before I got there. I think I've mentioned this before - the calls in the Auckland lounge for regional flights come far too late.
Anyway I reached the gate and noted I wasn't the only passenger still to board. A short walk in the sapping humidity to our aircraft. The flight was fairly full so I opted to try the bag drop which Air NZ has recently introduced for elite passengers on regional flights (provided no onward connection). It works the same as bag drop elsewhere, put the bag on trolley at the aircraft and pick it up at the aircraft at the destination - which means you get your bag earlier than other passengers (not that luggage takes long when arriving at a regional airport). There are downsides - in Auckland and Christchurch the koru club is behind security which means carry on size restrictions apply if you want to visit the lounge and also do a bag drop.
We taxiied out just a few minutes late and took a shortcut to jump ahead of a taxiing 737. We took off to the north and turned southeast. In between scuds of cloud that almost touched the ground we had brief views of the city, Hauraki gulf & islands, the bush clad Coromandel ranges, rolling hills and farmlands of northern Waikato and a glimpse of western Bay of Plenty in the distance before being swallowed up by the cloud deck.
Then no view, but also not much turbulence. Our flight time was short at 20 minutes and we were soon descending from the cloud into the caldera. The weather was similar to Auckland - very humid but not yet raining, dark skies mirrored in the lakes. The very land appearing lush and mystical with patches of ground hugging, white cloud and steam. We tracked across the northern edge of Lake Rotorua, turned by the channel connecting lakes Rotorua and Rotoiti and landed to the south.
I picked up my bag at the aircraft with no wait (ground staffer got the 2 bag dropped bags while the pilot opened the cabin door) and walked into the terminal.
I had quite a bit of time to fill. If the weather had been nicer I'd have walked into town but instead I decided to enjoy the luxury of sitting back, reading and watching the world go by. Or rather, since this is a small airport in the middle of nowhere, watching preparations for the activities welcoming the first flight from Sydney followed by activities for the first departure to Sydney.
While there is a brief pause in my flying, I'll take a moment to explain why the route Rotorua to Sydney is odd.
Rotorua is not a big town. Bigger places in NZ such as Hamilton and Palmerston North have lost their Air NZ trans-tasman flights, while Dunedin which is also bigger than Rotorua has had a significant cut-back in Air NZ trans-tasman flights. Over the past few years, the tasman schedule has been shaken up to the point the current one doesn't resemble that from several years ago.
Air NZ subsidiary Freedom Air was brought back into mainline. Subsequently a number of their routes (all the Hamilton & Palmerston North ones plus some others) have been dropped.
Wellington has had a big reduction in trans-tasman flights.
Even Auckland hasn't been immune with the old FT favourites of short 747 legs long gone, and some routes have had large reductions in frequency and capacity.
At the same time, Jetstar has been growing from Christchurch base and in the past year has taken over a number of Qantas flights out of Auckland as well. Pacific Blue has this year opened regional flights from Hamilton, Queenstown and Dunedin. Emirates has continued their slow increase in capacity with the Sydney flight switching to A380.
I'm rambling, so back to my points. Rotorua is not a big market. Heck even domestic flights have been reduced (Jetstar did not pick up the Qantas flights into Rotorua when they took over flying within NZ). Rotorua is close enough to Auckland that most leisure visitors spending more than a couple of days within NZ can easily visit it. Australian tourists tend to have short stays in NZ so there probably aren't too many currently visiting Rotorua.
Personally I think there is a reason why Air NZ has launched this route. One is to hamper Pacific Blue's Hamilton route. The catchment area for Hamilton includes Tauranga, Rotorua and the Bay of Plenty, southern Waikato, Taupo. Rotorua is less convenient for Hamilton & Tauranga but more conveniently reached for the rest of the catchment. North of Hamilton has easy access to Auckland. If Hamilton is marginal in terms of demand for direct service anyway (Air NZ claims Waikato customers were very price sensitive and so generally went for the cheaper Auckland flights) then the competition could kill the Pacific Blue route before it has a chance to get established, or at least make it much harder work for Pacific Blue.