There's more business class competition across the Tasman than ever before, with Emirates, LAN, Aerolineas Argentinas, Qantas and Air New Zealand offering international-standard seats between Sydney and Auckland.
Emirates has three flights a day between Australia and Auckland: two on Boeing 777-300ER planes via Brisbane and Melbourne, and a Sydney flight on an A380. All the Emirates planes are large international standard wide-body aircraft, with spacious cabins and more personal room than the smaller Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 planes used by other airlines.
Each of these flights also continues to Dubai after a brief Sydney stop.
Having done the Melbourne flight over the Christmas break, I picked up a cheap business class ticket, since I had a fair bit of luggage and wanted to farewell a six-month stay in New Zealand in style.
My one-way fare was A$406, with the flight leaving Auckland at 1800 and arriving into Sydney at 1925. By comparison, Virgin Blue in Premium Economy (which is Economy with a blocked-out middle seat) was A$472 and Qantas' NZ subsidiary Jetconnect's Business Class fare started at A$507 and upwards. Air New Zealand's fare was A$823.
Of course, Emirates' first and business class lounge, fully flat bed with direct aisle access and a full meal service, plus in-flight bar, means that the airline has a significantly better business class offering than its competitors.
Emirates' check-in desks at Auckland's international terminal are the very first you come to when driving up to the terminal, on the far left as you walk in the building.
With a separate line for first and business class passengers, it's a simple check-in at the desk, with the staff member explaining the fast-track departure screening process to me, checking I was in a preferred seat, and suggesting that if I wanted a livelier flight I could be seated closer to the bar.
The customs pre-clearance desk to the left of check-in is a great boon -- fill out the form and hand it to the customs agent downstairs and you get to use the APEC/crew line when you go upstairs for security.
Note that the Emirates chauffeur service isn't offered if you're just buying a trans-Tasman flight. For a $400 business class fare, that's fair enough, really.
Emirates' lounge is well-signed off to the right once you're through security.
The current offering is a small lounge with two separate seating and drinks areas, plus an extensive, frequently-refreshed hot and cold buffet.
A half-dozen PCs and a laser printer make up the business centre if you need to get something printed out for your flight.
A massage chair is in the far corner of the room without the buffet, and showers with upmarket toiletries are available as well.
The wine selection is local and very well-chosen, with some of my favourite NZ drops.
Man O'War Pinot Gris from just across Auckland Harbour in Waiheke, plus Craggy Range Sauvignon Blanc and Vavasour Chardonnay from Marlborough were the white offerings.
The red wines on offer were Man O'War (a Merlot-predominant Bordeaux blend) from Waiheke and the Mount Difficulty Pinot Noir from Central Otago.
Bubbles were Moët, and an extensive range of premium spirits, local and international beer, plus mixers (or, as some people call them, soft drinks) were also available.
The downside of the lounge is the lack of natural light -- it's well inside the airport and hasn't any windows.
But the wifi Internet (pick up the password from the desk on your way in) is speedy enough and simple to use.
The flight was announced with plenty of time to get out to the A380 -- which is important, because it's out at the separate A380 pier built at Auckland, which is a healthy five to ten minutes' walk. So don't dawdle in the (blessedly few and non-intrusive -- Sydney Airport, take note!) duty free.
First and Business Class passengers board through a premium line that leads to an entirely separate airbridge, which takes you directly to the upper deck. First class turns left, and Business turns right.
The flight over the Tasman is usually around the 3h30 mark, depending on what the headwinds are like in the Roaring Forties.
Despite a bit of the usual strong Tasman turbulence that had the crew diving for their seats during the drinks service, and me having to make sure that my glass of wine was a little less full than before the turbulence so it didn't spill, the flight was uneventful and on time.
The usual Express Path cards were handed out before landing in Sydney (even though they were for Auckland Airport, the Sydney customs staff didn't bat an eye). The card had me through customs faster than it took to walk from the gate through the numerous duty free shops in Sydney.
Priority luggage tags also meant my bag was in the first ten off the baggage carousel.
Emirates' A380 seat is a fully flat bed, rather than an angled lie-flat seat. Using an interesting staggered seating arrangement that seems all the rage in the Middle East right now (Etihad uses a similar arrangement in Business Class), every seat has direct access to the aisle.
The seat itself has a mixed reputation, with some frequent flyers calling it narrow and confining. By contrast, I thought my window seat was remarkably spacious in upright seat mode, when reclining, and when flattened out into the bed. The elbow room in particular gave a roomy feeling, and the seat's high walls make the A or K window seats and E & F middle pairs feel very private indeed.
I particularly liked the side table, which was at the perfect height to use a laptop on when reclining, and soft drink minibar. While the crew were in evidence throughout the entire flight, it was nice to be able to gulp down a glass of water while landing.
The main table slides out and forwards from beneath the side table area, making a big working and eating area big enough for either a large laptop or a small laptop plus various work papers. Of course, you can always spread out onto the side table as well.
A single power point and two USB sockets for charging sit underneath the TV, and I was able to charge up my 17" MacBook Pro, iPhone and iPad all at the same time. (That's actually unusual: many airlines' at-seat power points have problems with the extra juice needed for the 85W power brick for larger laptops.)
There was an excellent amount of storage space as well: a small laptop-sized or slot by the side of the seat, three large window bins (one of which easily took my 17" laptop case), a shoe box underneath the square area where your feet go in bed mode, seatback pockets, and an area in the minibar for your phone, headphones, and assorted things of that sort of size.
The seat reclines into a flat bed, and with a squashy pillow I was eminently comfortable for the trans-Tasman flight, and would have been entirely happy to continue on the long-haul flight to Dubai.
In bed mode, your feet end up in the square box area underneath the TV screen, which I'd imagined would be a little cramped, but was actually remarkably roomy. At 6'3", I was able to stretch out very happily in the seat when I tried it in bed mode, and if the bar at the back of business class hadn't been calling I'd have considered a nice snooze.
Emirates serves a full four course meal -- starter, main course, dessert or pudding and a cheese plate -- on the flight. (This is, of course, after you have partaken of the dozen different options in the lounge.)
Four wines accompany the meal: an 09 Sauvignon Blanc from Ninth Island in Tasmania, a 10 MollyDooker Verdelho, an 03 Chateau de Sales Pomerol, and an 08 d'Arry's Shiraz Grenache.
I tried a small glass of each, and they were all delicious -- but if you want the red, ask for a glass early and let it warm up. The one flaw in Emirates' dinner service was that both the Pomerol and the Shiraz Grenache were refrigerated.
As far as the food went, the chilled soy barbeque chicken salad was an excellent starter, and the citrus dressing with it was particularly good.
My main course, the Moroccan lamb salad, was one of the better salads I've eaten in the sky: grilled lamb just on the pink side, with mesclun leaves, cucumber, cherry tomatoes, kalamata olives and toasted pine nuts. The lamb itself was juicy and delicious.
I opted to skip the Tiramisú pudding -- served with butterscotch sauce -- and went straight to the cheese board, which was actually a wooden board: very classy. There were four cheeses on the board, a blue, a brie, a cheddar and a waxed cheese I couldn't identify but which was nonetheless delicious.
A glass of 05 Noval port washed them all down an absolute treat.
Entertainment & Service
Emirates' ICE entertainment system is absolutely world-class, with a 17" screen and more than 1200 channels to keep you occupied for even the longest of flights. Noise-cancelling headphones are a welcome addition.
As a classical music fiend, I really enjoyed the wide selection, split up by period. (The Baroque section in particular is clearly put together by someone who loves music.)
But there's a genre for everyone, from musicals (including the impressively risqué "The Producers") to Motown and a wide selection of chart stuff too.
In terms of service, the Emirates crew couldn't have been better. From multiple languages (we heard Spanish, French, Mandarin and Italian being spoken by the crew in the Business Class cabin alone) to elegant service on silver trays (rather than using a trolley), the A380 crew is clearly as much of a flagship product for Emirates as the plane. Wine was presented label first, and a tasting sample poured first to check whether it was up to snuff.
But the standup bar at the back of the plane is the real game-winner. It's roomy enough for a dozen or more people to stand or sit in comfort, and elegantly appointed. For a 6pm departure from Auckland, it's the perfect time to have a glass of something and a chat with colleagues or fellow passengers.
With the remarkable international route connections available through Dubai, it's fascinating to talk to other people on the flight -- and perfect for picking up the latest tips for your destination city.
Don't forget to watch the view from the camera on the A380's enormous tail at takeoff and landing: looking down over the big bird, it's an absolute trip to watch it leap into the sky.