Sorry about that. I got interrupted before posting the intro.
Late March and into April is a time of year when I typically travel a lot, albeit in short bursts due to scheduling issues. I love travelling when the seasons change. Less crowds. Lower fares. Less weather extremes to deal with. Really, a most pleasant time to travel.
I've known for some time that my schedule this year would be different, very different. Due to some new constraints I could not take my usual trips but since I start going nuts if I'm on the ground in one place for too long I knew I had to have some good travel.
The result will be the oddest fortnight of travel I've had, with some really big contrasts. From low cost airline flights to fantastic first class suites. From booked well in advance to (almost) last minute travel. Some luxurious airport lounges to airports with no lounge and a very dodgy public shower. Some comfortable long connections and other mad dashes to make the onward flight.
But, this is all to come. First up - what was I thinking with such insanity?
I have refilled my glass, so the creative juices are flowing once more. Sit back and relax while I do the next instalment.
Readers of my trip reports may have noticed an almost complete absence of reports of flights on low cost airlines. There is a good reason for that - I very rarely fly them. While I am happy (hmm not quite the right word, make that okay with) flying economy class from time to time, even longhaul economy, in order to save $ and remind myself how lucky I am to be mostly flying longhaul in premium cabins, I draw the line at low cost airlines.
It is not that I haven't flown low cost airlines, just not very often and certainly not for hours on end.
So with that background, it was last year when I was mulling over my (then) lack of planned travel in this period coincided with news of a new route. The schedule meant I could fairly easy do another inaugural, and extend the expiry of a stack of points by another year.
I was tempted but the stumbling block in my mind was the thought of flying several hours, followed by several more hours of a red-eye flight, on a low cost carrier, bookended by a demanding schedule. So I didn't book it straight away.
Some weeks later the route went on sale and, since I still had no travel planned for this time, that was enough for me to cave and book. Besides, I thought, just how bad could it be? I've flown far longer in economy. I've also flown plenty of red-eye flights. I've survived flights on low cost carriers before. Surely it can't be too bad? I'll get a bit of time to stretch my legs and work out the kinks following the first flight. Plenty of coffee after the second to make sure I get through 2 days with almost no sleep. That will work, wont it?
Fast forward several months. I'd been watching the continuous sale of the flights in question and seat availability. Both indicated light loads for both the flights. Still there was a nagging voice in my head saying I was very stupid for booking this and subjecting my body to this pain.
AUCKLAND to CAIRNS (AKL-CNS) on Pacific Blue* 737-800 in economy class, inaugural flight
* Virgin Blue is Pacific Blue within NZ and for most shorthaul international flights, Polynesian Blue for select flights to some South Pacific islands, and V Australia for longhaul (+ some shorthaul) flights. The same airline code, DJ, is used for all these airlines except VA for V Australia (not to be confused with VX for Virgin America or VS for Virgin Atlantic). The different names & entities are due in part to licensing of the Virgin name, although there are other factors as well.
I'd had a crazily busy couple of weeks, so while I was apprehensive about flying a low cost airline through the night I was also oddly looking forward to it - perhaps a call from my inner masochist?
Anyway, I finally escaped to the airport, and remarkably only slightly later than I'd planned. I had a minor moment of panic when I checked the time on my phone to see an hour difference but relaxed again when I realised the phone hadn't caught up with the change in dates a couple of years ago for when daylight savings end and I simply had overlooked the time error for a few days
I wanted to check in fairly early because I had plans for my time in the lounge - a shower, some food & drink, some work and some FT. So far it was going to plan ... until I arrived at the international terminal.
I arrived 3 hours before departure expecting that check in will have opened by now. It wasn't. With nothing better to do I hung around and people watched.
A large tour group trundled by and proceeded to weigh all 100+ bags on the public weigh machine. I didn't understand why they did this - AFAIK large groups get their baggage allowances pooled.
There was the usual scenes that you might see at an airport almost anywhere. Some people scrambling to make check in deadlines. Some people tearfully saying goodbye - for how long will they be apart? Some people arriving far too early (no Emirates check in won't be open for a good while yet). Some travelling light, others with so much gear I shudder to think what the excess charges might be. Arriving passengers headed to the walkway to domestic terminal. A gaggle of cabin crew reporting for their flight which departs in 90 minutes time. A pilot and flight attendant headed through the terminal for the carpark together. A near continuous movement on the departure screens as flights departing drop off the list and all other flights move up, and changes in the status as flights open for check in, process, and close for check in.
Being easily distracted time passed quickly, and when I realised check in was opening for the flight half an hour had gone by. By this time there was a small queue, in part due to the recommendation by Pacific Blue to check in at least 90 minutes before departure. One thing that puzzles me is their check in cut off for international flights from Auckland is purportedly 30 minutes before departure - at peak times it can easily take this long to get through immigration at Auckland.
I should stop rambling and get back to the trip. Most of the desks being used for checking in Malaysian Airlines flight to Kuala Lumpur switched over to be used for Pacific Blue (a couple of desks remained open for stragglers on that flight). There were balloons at check in but otherwise no indication this was anything other than an ordinary flight.
I was asked if I wanted an aisle or window seat. I selected aisle and asked if the middle seat could be blocked. Normally I wouldn't be so cheeky as to ask when flying an airline I have no status with, but since I expected the load was light I thought I should try to salvage a modicum of comfort. The agent hadn't checked me in for the onward flight so I asked for that too. The system had allocated a seat in the premium seating section (with a couple of extra inches of legroom) but when the agent noticed this on the boarding pass I was moved back a few rows. Ahh so close.
Boarding passes in hand I went upstairs for immigration. There were huge queues snaking all the way to the entrance (ie a few hundred people). The airport carry on police were out in force asking many people to weigh their bags and more than a few turned back to check in, but my little bag was small enough to not require weighing.
The immigration area is relatively new and they don't have good aircon. It is times like today, moderately warm with high humidity and a large crowd in small space when I realise how lucky I am to almost always be able to use the pre-clearance line or the Air NZ premium & elite line. The only times I cannot are when flying LAN on the early flight (no pre-clearance since Qantas changed their check in systems), or the Singapore Airlines redeye (pre-clearance is only for the daytime flight), or very rare times when flying an airline I have no status with.
I spend the next 40 minutes shuffling forward. At times there are only 3 immigration desks manned and we are stationery for long periods. Other times there are more staff and we can move as much as we stop. Eventually it is my turn, and I'm quickly dealt with. Perhaps dazed by the wait I made an error in picking the security line with the shortest queue and no likely slow people in it. The error was this is the crew & shop staff line and while I got through the WTMD quickly it meant I was "randomly" selected for a pat-down.
By the time I reached the Qantas lounge, to which I have open door access, I had about 30 minutes before boarding. A quick hello to the lounge staff and I had a choice - shower, food & drink, or work. I only had time for 1 or 2 of these so opted to drop the shower and do that in transit later on.
30 minutes later I'd managed very little work but was happy to have had a few glasses of wine and a nice, small late lunch of some mini sandwiches with various fillings. At least this should help hold off hunger pangs for a while longer. Our gate was the usual one used by Pacific Blue, gate 16L at the far end of pier B - ie a long way from the lounge.
A great read. I look forward to seeing this thread develop.
And you know what KiwiFlyer, you've got me inspired. I recently did a CHC-SYD return for the Phoenix game. And although I wont create a thread about that- my very next trip I'll make my first Flyer Talk Trip report.
An Emirates A380 bound for Sydney and Dubai was at gate 15 having recently disgorged a load of passengers. The aircraft dwarfed the Qantas and Pacific Blue 737s at gate 16R & 16L. It reminded me of the time a couple of years ago I was in Sydney on a Dash 8 when an A380 went by.
The gate area was fuller than I expected. The Qantas flight to Brisbane was about to board but their load was extremely low - perhaps only 10 or 20?! The Pacific Blue flight hadn't started boarding either. In the gate area the "festivities" were low key as is usual for Pacific Blue inaugural flights, in keeping with their low cost ethos. There were some mini pavlovas and pieces of fruit, as well as tea, coffee, juice and water. A couple of the DJ marketing staff were wearing flippers and snorkel, and another had a shark around their waist.
There were about 100 passengers on our flight, although a significant number were of non-paying variety - deadheading DJ crew, DJ marketing staff, friends & family of DJ staff, tourism people, and some media people also. Together with the paying passengers probably all on the sale fare, the yield from the flight must have been dreadful. Hopefully things improve.
Boarding commenced about 10 minutes prior to scheduled departure and was very quickly completed. Not wanting to sit in a cramped seat any longer than absolutely necessary, I hung back and was the last to board. I was halfway down the airbridge when I was called back by the gate agent and given a new boarding pass with a different seat. Alas no upgrade, which would be difficult given the lack of higher classes of travel, and not even an improvement of a switch to the premium seats with more legroom. However, the change in seat did ensure I kept my empty adjacent middle seat
No pre-departure drink (of course). While we waited for the paperwork to be completed we were welcomed on the inaugural flight and our flight time was announced as 5 hours 15 minutes. We pushed back a few minutes late and had a long taxi to the far end of the runway. A mexican wave was requested and delivered by the passengers when the wheels left the runway.
After take off there was a quick once through the cabin offering Lindauer sparkling wine or orange juice - this is an inaugural flight tradition. Unlike some other DJ inaugural flights I've flown there were no seconds. The cabin crew, perhaps unused to offering free beverages and tray service (as opposed to trolley service) and lost track of which rows to serve next several times.
After the plastic cups were selected there was a trolley with IFE handsets for hire ($20) and headphones to purchase for the inseat audio ($2.50). Buy onboard food & beverage service followed. DJ doesn't provide complimentary drinks, not even water. For around $15 you could have a little bite to eat and a couple of drinks. All items purchased onboard can be paid for in cash or by credit card, and in Australian or New Zealand dollars. With current exchange rates, paying in NZD is over 20% cheaper than paying in AUD.
Before I get too distracted in the crew & staff antics, I should describe the seat. It is a bog standard shorthaul seat, with minimal legroom which seems to vary a bit by row. In the particular seat I'm in there is just enough room for my knees as long as the passenger in front doesn't recline. However on the onward flight there was not enough kneeroom no matter which position the passenger in front was in. Seat width felt slightly wider than on Air NZ 737s, but the consequence of that is the aisle is narrower and aisle passengers get banged up a lot. This is especially so on an inaugural flight with much more back and forth being done by cabin crew and the marketing staff than would be the case for a normal flight. The result - bruises on my elbow and leg.
The newest marketing staff member got the short straw and had to wear the nemo fish costume around her waist, plus got plenty of ribbing all flight.
Next bright red DJ t-shirts commemorating the inaugural flight were given away for a donation to Variety. On the front was "GOOD REEF we are headed to Cairns" and on the back route, date and DJ logo. This raised $450 and was followed by another food & beverage run.
Next came an auction (again for Variety). Nemo paddles were handed out. On previous DJ inaugural flights the call bell has been used to make a bid. On offer flights (no blackout) for 2 to Cairns, several nights accommodation, transfers, day trip to Great Barrier Reef, another day trip to the rainforest, etc). This eventually raised $1800.
Then there was a quiz. The first question proved too hard (or perhaps the wrong answer was recorded) but eventually about a dozen chocolate slabs were given away to those who first guessed the answer to each question.
An announcement was made that the pilot was the one on the DJ macarena video (coincidentally on another DJ inaugural I had 2 of the macarena flight attendants) so of course one passenger was persuaded to do the macarena in the aisles while everyone else laughed. They offered a ride in the cockpit but somehow this morphed into a wee ride down the aisle on top of one of the trolleys. Amazingly no one got hurt.
By now we were cruising along the north Queensland coast with views of the Great Barrier Reef for those sitting on the left hand side. There were some minor bumps, but thankfully Cyclone Uliu had well vacated the area passing through a few days beforehand.
Mindful of the upcoming redeye, and the long days I'd already had, I tried to get some sleep. While I dozed for 30 minutes before top of descent I didn't get any real sleep thanks to few breaks in the use of the PA during the flight.
We had great views of the area just north of Cairns as we turned to land towards the south. The sun was just setting and it quickly got dark. We taxiied to the furthest gate from the runway (gate 1), which is also the furthest gate from immigration. No water cannon for the arrival because Virgin Blue already serves Cairns as a domestic airline (this was the first DJ international flight at Cairns).