United in our Skies
It’s been 13 years since United Airlines was a familiar friend in our skies, flying the Trans-Pacific route between New Zealand and California. Mike Yardley sets the stage on their welcome return.
Last time a United jet took-off from Auckland Airport, Americans were still reeling in the face of the September 11 terrorist attacks, Facebook was a figment of Mark Zuckerberg’s imagination and the size of many cellphones were still brick-like. But this week, United Airlines returns to our skies, launching direct services between Auckland and its West Coast hub of San Francisco.
From July 1, the US carrier will begin operating a three times weekly 787-8 service between Auckland and San Francisco and Auckland, which will expand to a daily service on a larger 787-9 aircraft from October 30. Yes, the much-loved, fuel-efficient and comfort-enhanced Dreamliner will whisk United passengers across the Pacific.
Recently, I caught up with United Airlines’ Country Manager, Julie Reid, for a sneak peek on what the newly improved United service between New Zealand and the United States will offer. For starters, it will substantially bolster the spirit of competition, with its arch-rival, American, also launching direct services from Auckland to Los Angeles. Also in the mix is the 3 year-old services Hawaiian Airlines offers from Auckland to Honolulu and on to the USA mainland.
United’s Star Alliance partner, Air New Zealand, has never faced such intense competition on the Trans-Pacific route from New Zealand, which it has virtually monopolised in the past decade. Julie Reid doesn’t envisage United will seek to undercut all of its competitors for pole position as a price leader, but she is confident that United will seek to remain price-competitive. Return airfares on the Trans-Pacific routes have plunged sharply in recent months, providing a boon for travellers.
Last year, 175,000 Kiwis visited the USA and United reports that advanced bookings on its new Auckland service have exceeded expectations. Similarly, the in-bound tourism market will be heartened by the high level of interest from US-based travellers in the new United offering.
The Connectivity King
Julie Reid considers connectivity as the key feature to United’s value proposition. “We are the world’s biggest carrier by the number of destinations we fly to.” There’s no disputing that United is now a giant. Since they last serviced New Zealand, the carrier merged with Continental, retaining the United brand expanding its network substantially. The airline serves 226 US cities and 136 international destinations.
From its West Coast hub of San Francisco, United operates 200 flights a day to 83 destinations. Julie also confirmed that the new United route from Auckland, will throw open more long-haul options for Kiwis travelling on to the likes of New York, or across the Atlantic, non-stop from San Francisco to London or Paris. Long-haul return airfares to Europe will enable you to enjoy a stopover in both San Francisco and New York, if you want to.Julie Reid is particularly excited about the joint venture arrangement with its Star Alliance partner, Air New Zealand, who will also continue to fly the San Francisco route. The joint venture will allow passengers to accrue frequent flier points on both airlines, while enjoying reciprocal access to airline lounges and a seamless journey from a traveller’s airport of origin.
For example, let’s suppose you’re flying to San Francisco from Dunedin, Christchurch, Napier or Palmerston North. Partnering with Air New Zealand’s domestic network, you will be able to check your bag in all the way to California, from a provincial airport, if that’s where your journey begins. You won’t need to lug your bags between the domestic and international terminals in Auckland. You’ll be ticketed all the way.
The US Airline Experience
Ask most Kiwi travellers for their impressions of flying US-based carriers within mainland USA and you’re not likely to receive a gushing report card of high praises. Let’s face it – domestic flights within the USA are entirely forgettable frills-free affairs.
But unlike the flying buses within the mainland, United’s international services are a completely different beast and Julie is highly confident that Kiwis will be suitably impressed by the in-flight offering from Auckland. Dreamliners, by their very nature, exude a far more enjoyable flying experience, with mood lighting to sooth your body rhythm and far superior air-filtration systems, substantially enhancing your sense of well-being. You don’t walk off a Dreamliner feeling like a shrivelled, punch-drunk prune. Every seat will be equipped with USB ports, power points and in-flight WiFi connectivity. So, if you really want to faff about on Facebook all the way across the Pacific, now you can. As a general rule of thumb, I begrudge having to pay for WiFi access, but at 35,000 feet across the Pacific Ocean, on a 12 hour flight, the US$16.99 access fee for unlimited use doesn’t seem unreasonable.
The full-service international carrier will offer a substantial food and drink service, with two meal servings and mid-flight snacks, plus the in-screen TV service serves up a world of entertainment in every seatback. If you want to push the boat out, United’s BusinessFirst seats offer extra frills from the noise reducing headphones and quality amenity kits to the fully flat beds. Plus, a signature treat on United are the ice cream sundaes.
Economy passengers are entitled to complimentary checked luggage of 23kg, with the allocation extended based on your frequent flier status. United Mileage Plus is the airline’s rewards programme which is free to join and interacts with the Star Alliance programme.Finally, I asked Julie Reid for her traveller tips on exploring San Francisco. There is no doubt that arriving at SFO is a far more palatable experience when navigating your way through border processing. Julie reckons you really need a good five to seven nights in San Francisco, to do the area justice.
Beyond the city landmarks and headline delights of the Golden Gate, Alcatraz and the Trolley Cars, don’t skimp on the wondrous wine of Napa Valley and the epic natural encounters of Yosemite. Welcome back to New Zealand, United Airlines. Fly well.
For flights to suit and best available fares, jump to United Airlines website.
By Mike Yardley. (June 27,2016.)