Air New Zealand frequent flyers and business travellers across the Tasman have been trying to sort through the many-layered implications of the airline's new Seat Select scheme announced last week.
As we previously reported, Seat Select sees Air New Zealand now charging for the best seats on its planes – seats previously reserved for the airline's Gold and Gold Elite frequent flyers and Koru cardholders, as well as Virgin Australia Velocity Gold and Platinum tier passengers.
Update: Velocity Gold & Platinum frequent flyers lose online Air NZ premium seat selection until "early 2013". Read more...
All Air NZ would say publicly about the new scheme was that it would mean "minor location adjustments" to the seats you could choose as a frequent flyer.
But the impact on travellers is more than 'minor', and it's also more than just a location change.
Australian Business Traveller sat down with Alastair Rhodes, Air New Zealand's Manager of Direct Ancillary Revenue -- and the man in charge of rolling out Seat Select -- to detail exactly what's changed for you as a frequent flyer.
About those minor location adjustments...
On Air NZ's flagship Boeing 777-300, for example, the airline's top-tier frequent flyers lose ten of the prized Premium Economy Spaceseats -- almost half of the previously ear-marked allocation -- which have been put up for sale on a first come, first served basis.
These seats aren't sold as premium economy on the Tasman, which made them a great perk for business travellers crossing the ditch.
The 'complimentary premium seating' for the airline's most valuable customers is now restricted to fewer than three full rows of the premium economy Spaceseats.
Air NZ is adding fourteen ultra-narrow economy seats -- only two of which have any extra legroom at all -- to the 'premium' seating pool for frequent flyers.
By the way, that nimble bit of maths is how the airline can claim the frequent flyer 'allocation' of seats remains the same or even increases slightly -- the airline says that the number of 'premium' seats is rising by 9 percent overall. That may be true in quantity, but definitely not in quality.
It's a similar scene on the Boeing 777-200s often found on Melbourne and Brisbane flights to Auckland.
You lose the chance to pick from 15 extra-legroom premium economy seats, including two thirds of the exit rows -- those are now up for sale. You'll now be ushered into one of 18 regular old economy seats -- which aren't even exit rows, since those are also available for a fee.
What Seat Select means to Trans-Tasman frequent flyers
The specific impact of Seat Select will depend on the type of aircraft you're flying.
There's no change for Airbus A320 single-aisle planes, which comprise over fifty percent of Air New Zealand's trans-Tasman flights, including flights to all NZ airports other than Auckland.
However, Auckland flights frequently use larger Boeing jets due to the higher demand on the main business route, and that's where where Air NZ is selling the best of the seats that it previously handed out to elite frequent flyers.
These are the premium economy seats on its Boeing 777 planes, extra-legroom bulkhead seats, the exit row, and extra-elbow-room pairs of seats on its 777s and 767s.
Those choice seats can now be bought by any passenger. Only those seats remaining unsold from the last 48 hours before each flight will be allocated to Gold and Gold Elite frequent flyers and Koru cardholders.
In other words: top-tier frequent flyers eager to lock in a prime seat will now have to pay for it like everybody else.
Seat Select seatmaps show the complete picture
Air New Zealand's Rhodes supplied Australian Business Traveller with current seat maps illustrating exactly what's up for sale on each aircraft -- with the caveat that these could change as the airline finds the right balance for each route between earning extra money from sold seats and making its frequent flyers feel hard done by.
There are now three types of premium seating on sale: Preferred, Bassinet and Exit Row, all of which were previously available as part of the elite frequent flyer package. They (and other seats) are colour-coded on the seat maps:
- green seats are the Preferred category
- pink seats are the Bassinet bulkheads
- orange seats are Exit Row seats
- purple seats fall into the "middle-seat-free economy" Works Deluxe package
- blue seats are what remains for top-tier frequent flyers
Airbus A320: no changes
There's no change to seats on the A320, which runs nearly two thirds of Air New Zealand's flights, including all destinations outside Auckland.
Air New Zealand is now offering seats 4D, 4E, 4F, 5D, 5E, and 5F as part of its for-sale Preferred seating option -- those are the green-marked sections below. These were previously regular economy seats, not the extra-legroom Space+ section.
Elite seating (in blue) remains at the same 30 seats per plane as before: row 3 on the D/E/F seat right side of the plane, and rows 3-11 on the A/B/C seat left side of the plane.
But that's where the good news for frequent flyers ends.
Boeing 777-300: big cuts to the better seats
Air New Zealand's flagship is occasionally seen on flights from Australia to Auckland.
Like its smaller, older cousin the 777-200, the airline doesn't market its excellent premium economy Spaceseats on trans-Tasman routes, so these seats were part of the package for elites or Works Deluxe passengers.
The best of the Spaceseats formerly allocated to elites are now up for sale, with just rows 25 & 26, plus seats D & E in rows 24 and 27, available for frequent flyers. (Remember: green, pink and orange are for sale, purple is for the Works Deluxe package and blue is for frequent flyers.)
A total of ten Spaceseats are now for sale, including the extra-legroom bulkhead seats in row 23.
As with the 777-200, "replacement" seats for frequent flyers -- fourteen of them on this plane -- are in the ultra-tight 3-4-3 economy layout down the back for frequent flyers.
Let's be honest: to call this a "minor location adjustment" is quite a stretch.
But even there, the extra-legroom first rows of the economy cabins and the popular extra-elbow-room seat pairs in rows 57-59 down the back are kept back for sale.
Seats ABC and HJK in rows 26 and 27, plus 26D and 26E, are now all that elites get.
Boeing 777-200: big cuts to the better seats
Air NZ runs the 777-200s on high-demand trips from Melbourne, Brisbane, and occasionally Sydney to Auckland.
They're also used on Auckland-Perth flights, but these are sold as full long-haul flights with premium economy, so the "Seat Select" scheme doesn't apply.
The airline doesn't market its premium economy seats on this route, with 27 of them previously allocated to elite frequent flyers in regular economy, and a further nine to Works Deluxe "middle-seat-free economy" package.
Remember: green, pink and orange are for sale, purple is for the Works Deluxe package and blue is for frequent flyers.
Air NZ will now sell 15 of the 27 premium economy seats formerly allocated to elites as Bassinet or Preferred seating. You'll only be able to choose these 48 hours before your flight.
For elites, these premium economy seats are being replaced by 18 regular economy class seats, seats ABC and HJK in rows 35, 36 and 37. That's the maths behind Air New Zealand's "no reduction in seats" claim.
Regular economy seats further back in the plane are shifting up too, with bulkhead, exit row and extra-elbow room seats restricted for people who will pay up. They'll be available for elites 48 hours in advance.
That covers seats ABC and DEF in rows 34, 53 and 54, seats DEF in row 54, and seats A, B, J and K in rows 53 and 65.
Boeing 767: no more extra legroom seats for frequent flyers
These twin-aisle planes and their popular 2-3-2 seating layout are often seen on Auckland flights, especially from Sydney.
Seats newly up for sale -- and thus unavailable to elites until 48 hours before departure -- are row 7, 10A, 10B, row 18-19, and seats D, E and F in row 20.
While the overall number of elite seats increases from 24 to 28, frequent flyers are left without extra-legroom bulkhead or exit row seat options, and are relegated to the window pairs of seats: A and B in rows 11-16, J and K in rows 9-13, and seats 20A, 20B, 20K and 20K.
Domestic: no change to Boeing 737 and Airbus A320
It's better news in Air NZ's domestic market.
The all-economy Airbus A320 and Boeing 737 planes jetting between New Zealand's cities will only lose six extra-legroom Space+ seats to the new system, and the intention is for those to only be available for purchase during off-peak hours, Air New Zealand's Rhodes confirmed to Australian Business Traveller.
That leaves a good chunk of the domestic extra-legroom seats reserved for frequent flyers.
Velocity Gold and Platinum benefits offline until early 2013
Virgin Australia's Velocity Gold and Platinum frequent flyers can't pick the extra-legroom premium seats at all, thanks to a glitch in the new system that Australian Business Traveller discovered this week. Air NZ isn't expecting to resolve the matter until January at the earliest -- but AusBT exclusively brings you a workaround so you're not squashed in a middle seat down the back.
Get the latest news for business travellers and frequent flyers, and be the first to read in-depth analysis like this! Follow @AusBT on Twitter.
About John Walton
Aviation journalist and travel columnist John took his first long-haul flight when he was eight weeks old and hasn't looked back since. Well, except when facing rearwards in business class.