When flying from Wellington to Melbourne on the Air New Zealand-Virgin Australia trans-Tasman alliance, you have two options: a 3am wakeup call for the 6am Air New Zealand flight, or connecting in either Auckland, Christchurch, Sydney or Brisbane.
I decided to take the 4pm Pacific Blue flight from Wellington to Brisbane, get some work done in the Virgin Australia Brisbane lounge and then head on to Melbourne.
My question for this flight was: is connecting (on a 3h55 flight to Brisbane plus 2h25 flight to Melbourne) at a reasonable hour of day better than a direct flight at stupid o'clock?
(I'll only be reviewing the actual trans-Tasman flight through to the end of the connection process, since Brisbane-Melbourne is a pretty standard hop.)
Pacific Blue's check-in desks are next to the centre walkway to departures on Wellington Airport's upper level. (The airport's only a minute's walk from end to end, though, so it doesn't really matter where you're dropped.)
If you're staying in a hotel in Wellington, aim for late check-out: Pacific Blue's flights open for check-in only two hours prior to departure, so there's no point rucking up before 2pm for a 4pm departure.
A cheery check-in agent had me checked in swiftly, and since I was connecting on to Melbourne she explained that my bags would be tagged through to Melbourne but I'd need to pick them up to clear customs and quarantine in Brisbane.
I was also issued with an express path fast-track card for my arrival at Brisbane and a New Zealand immigration departure card.
My boarding pass was a good ream of receipt-style paper, which contains an unwieldy eight centimetres or so of adverts for Virgin lounges and Velocity underneath the actual boarding pass part. (Remarkably daft, since my Velocity Gold membership is printed in big letters at the top of the receipt.)
This means it doesn't fit neatly into a shirt or jacket pocket with your express path and immigration departures card, and ends up spilling over the top.
I headed straight through to the Air New Zealand international lounge, which was disappointingly humdrum overall but had a good wine selection.
Check out my review of the lounge -- but don't forget, you'll have a maximum of about one hour and forty-five minutes in there since check-in opens two hours before departure.
Boarding was called from the lounge thirty minutes before departure, and the lounge staff were keen to have everyone out as soon as possible since this is the last international departure for the day.
I dawdled for a couple of minutes to send a couple of files and felt like I needed to apologise to the staff for delaying their day.
There was no priority boarding at Wellington, so I queued up behind everyone else to board. Since the plane was only about two-thirds full, this wasn't that much of a problem, but I'd be looking for priority boarding to be one of the improvements when Pacific Blue turns into Virgin Australia later this year.
The flight itself was uneventful, and we landed in Brisbane on time.
To connect to my Melbourne flight, I cleared immigration, waited ages for my checked bag (the purple priority tag failed: mine was nearly the very last out) and cleared customs & quarantine swiftly with the Express Path card I'd been given at check-in.
If you're wondering how international-to-domestic transfer works at Brisbane: act as if you're landing at Brisbane and leaving the airport until you get out of the security and quarantine area into arrivals.
After walking out of the door into arrivals I headed for the Virgin Australia transfer desk (still marked Virgin Blue) at the far right end of the arrivals hall:
The staffer took my checked bag, which had already been tagged through to Melbourne, and gave me a slip of paper for a free train ride from the international terminal over to domestic.
The train came in six minutes -- pulling up at the far end of the platform, so wait there unless you fancy scurrying down the platform to the train in the event that it's a half-length one like I got -- and it's only a couple of minutes to the international side of the airport.
Priority security screening worked as advertised and I was quickly through and upstairs to the lounge, awaiting my Melbourne flight.
The New Zealander crew -- Pacific Blue is generally crewed with Kiwis, much like Qantas' Jetconnect operation and Jetstar New Zealand -- welcomed me on board and it was just a couple of steps to the seat I'd chosen, 3A.
Row 3 is identical to the first two rows, which are sold as Premium Economy, and is available to Velocity Gold and Platinum Frequent Flyer cardholders to pick when seat reservations open fourteen days before departure.
It gives extra legroom (I'd estimate seat pitch of about 35-36 inches) and the middle seats are often blocked off.
There were certainly no middle seat passengers in row 3 during my flight, although it wasn't a full flight and pretty much anyone would pick a window or aisle seat further back rather than sit in a middle seat further forward.
The seat itself was pretty unremarkable, with red leather seat cover, a tray table that folded down and the literature pocket at knee level.
I was surprised how sparse the usual Virgin Australian Luke Mangan-designed buy-on-board menu seemed for such a long flight.
The most substantial options are two pies (one vegetarian), a wrap (vegetarian), a noodle salad (vegetarian and gluten free) or a sandwich.
That might be fine for an hour's jaunt, but for flights that can sometimes take up to five hours if the Tasman winds are really blowing it seems a little underprovisioned.
Snacks were banana bread, M&Ms, a cookie, cheese & crackers (the same ones handed out for free on Capital Connect flights to Canberra), potato chips or a nut and pretzel mix.
Drinks are the usual airline selection of red/white, beer and spirits, a "Karmarama" tropical juice, ginger beer, Pepsi and Pepsi Max, and the usual mixers.
Unlike on domestic Virgin Australia flights, tea, coffee and water are free for all passengers, and the crew made a second pass through the cabin about ninety minutes before landing.
Entertainment & Service
The inflight entertainment for my fare was limited to the in-flight magazine, Voyeur. (It's a classy read, but not really enough for the 3h45 flight to Brisbane.)
Virgin Australia's perturbingly capitalised digEplayers are available for $15, which I couldn't fail to notice because my seatmate went through three of them -- the first two stopped working.
The digEplayer screens themselves are pretty good in terms of quality -- especially since they're upgraded models compared with the domestic ones on Virgin Australia -- but they're small and you're limited to staring down at them on the fold-out tray: they don't clip onto the seatback in front or anything.
Pacific Blue's entertainment certainly comes out markedly below Air New Zealand's excellent and wide-ranging seatback on-demand options.
My advice: when on Pacific Blue, buy a couple of movies of your choice and download them to your laptop, iPad or phone.
The service was fine but not remarkable. It certainly wasn't up to Air New Zealand levels of cheeriness, and there was a lot of that strange airline speak -- "authorities DO require", "at this time", and so on.
But everyone cracked a smile on landing when we were taxiing towards Brisbane's international terminal and welcomed to Christchurch (where the crew were heading to next).
If I were picking between flights again, I'd absolutely choose the afternoon flight instead of the 6am departure, even with the connection to Melbourne and the lack of Air New Zealand's entertainment.
Despite the extra time in the air, I got a lot more work done in the air and had a much more productive day than I would have if I'd got up at 3am for a 6am flight and then been sleep-deprived for the rest of the day.
But I'd pick Air New Zealand over Pacific Blue for the excellent entertainment system Air NZ offers, especially on longer westbound flights.