Inaugural flight report: United provides New Zealand’s South Island in distinctive enlargement plan

Disclosure: TPG accepted a comped round-trip ticket from United for the SFO-CHC flight to get entry to the occasions and executives on board. TPG paid $574.67 for a positioning flight to SFO and for different related prices, corresponding to lodge and floor transportation.

United Airways launched its new thrice-weekly service to Christchurch, New Zealand, on Friday, turning into the one service to attach the US on to the most important metropolis of the nation’s South Island.

At first look, Christchurch is a weird dot for United to placed on its map. With a inhabitants beneath a half-million, New Zealand’s second-biggest metropolis is a 3rd the dimensions of Auckland, which has historically served as the first Kiwi hub for long-haul flyers.

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The town remains to be remembered for the 2011 earthquake that broken hundreds of buildings and killed 185 residents. Greater than a decade later, there are nonetheless indicators of the town’s rebuilding, with building zones scattered about and empty heaps nonetheless awaiting growth beneath the area’s reconstruction down. But the town is alive and vibrant, with a thriving native scene and entry to adventures throughout the South Island.

Extra notably, the town is the newest instance of United’s long-term worldwide technique, a plan to construct the post-pandemic airline round world long-haul journey. By the way, Christchurch now turns into the airline’s southern-most vacation spot, in line with United Capt. Mark Champion.

As for its more and more world ambitions, the airline is taking a two-prong method. First, it is including extra connections from its hubs to common tried-and-tested locations — as an example, the airline’s newly introduced service from San Francisco to Rome, a metropolis it already serves each day through the summer time from its Newark, Chicago and Washington hubs.

United pilot Captain Mark Champion forward of the airline’s inaugural flight to Christchurch. DAVID SLOTNICK/THE POINTS GUY

Second, the airline is including smaller locales the world over to its route community, together with some cities that may not appear apparent apparent additions. Amongst these are routes that won’t have great nonstop enterprise journey demand, however which have potential with leisure vacationers and VFR passengers — VFR, shorthand in airline enterprise lingo for “visiting pals and kin,” is a subset of leisure that’s typically extra price-conscious. Current examples embrace Manila within the Philippines; Amman, Jordan; and Accra, Ghana.

Of these smaller locations, United has additionally proven itself prepared to be affected person and work to develop new markets, selling tourism, promoting routes and giving them time to develop. Of all the brand new routes added for the reason that pandemic, the airline has solely canceled one — to Bergen, Norway. Different routes which were added, or are about to be, embrace secondary locations throughout Portugal: Faro (FAO) beginning subsequent summer time, plus Porto (OPO) and Ponta Delgada (PDL) within the Azores.

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Specializing in these secondary markets is the place Christchurch is available in.

“Christchurch is admittedly the gateway to the South Island,” stated Patrick Quayle, United’s chief of worldwide community planning in an interview with TPG in Christchurch following the inaugural flight. “After we take a look at passenger demand and we take a look at the info, given our relationship with Air New Zealand, it is site visitors not solely going to Christchurch however going to Queenstown and past.”

Patrick Quayle, United’s head of worldwide community planning, forward of the inaugural flight to Christchurch. DAVID SLOTNICK/THE POINTS GUY

The final time an airline flew nonstop between Christchurch and the US was in 2006, in line with the Cirium aviation information supplier. That flight was operated to Los Angeles by Air New Zealand on its Boeing 747-400 — that airplane the airline retired in 2014.

Flights from Auckland, in the meantime, have been a relentless, persevering with by way of with service to Honolulu and the West Coast, together with Houston, Chicago, and, lately, so far as New York Metropolis.

In keeping with Quayle, although, Christchurch is a chance for leisure.

“That is prominently going to be premium leisure,” he stated. “There may be positively a enterprise ingredient, however most of what we’re seeing after we take a look at our Auckland service is premium leisure.”

Quayle stated that whereas the airline sees Christchurch primarily as an inbound market, although the airline’s three way partnership with Air New Zealand and its total North America community does present some restricted outbound demand.

“The native market is fairly small right here,” he stated. “There may be some outbound demand, and given our connectivity in San Francisco, the power to attach all of North America offers us an incredible proposition.”

That partnership with Air New Zealand is what in the end makes Christchurch a viable market, Quayle stated, noting that it could not be attainable in any other case. When Air New Zealand dropped service to the U.S. from the town in 2006, the carriers’ three way partnership was not in totally place, which made it troublesome to each drum up demand, and to supply broader connectivity, giving the route extra enchantment.

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“You actually are dependent upon the connecting proposition,” he stated. “Having the joint gross sales of Air New Zealand promoting on us and us promoting on them, it actually opens up the loyalty facet.”

However there’s one other alternative for the airline — one which matches to clarify the way it’s capable of make investments the time and sources in so many of those routes, a few of which have comparatively skinny demand initially: cargo.

“One of many issues that basically excites me is that now that we have got an additional couple of wide-body jets coming into Christchurch, we are able to get our freight out,” stated Phil Mauger the mayor of Christchurch, throughout a presentation following the inaugural flight’s arrival. “Some stuff needed to be trucked all the way in which to Auckand [to be shipped], so that may save loads of grief.”

Christchurch solely has a complete of 123 widebody departures this December, in line with Cirium. United represents 10 of these, or 8% of widebody departures, and the one ones heading northeast.

“The 787 affords nice cargo flexibility, so we’re tremendous excited to get the perishable objects that have been beforehand being shipped up through Auckland,” Quayle stated.

Cargo will help the airline develop new markets like Christchurch, Quayle stated, constructing in some further income because the airline works to drum up demand and set up the passenger market.

“Cargo will help for those who’re a big sufficient market,” Quayle stated. “A spot like Malaga or Faro isn’t going to have a lot cargo, however a spot like Christchurch, positively.”

“Throughout the pandemic, cargo was the one factor that saved our plane flying,” he added. “What we have come again to, you would not ever do a flight only for cargo, but it surely’s positively the icing on the cake.”

In the meantime, creating the market is a key a part of United’s recipe for achievement on these routes. It is not only a matter of selling the flight expertise; promoting the vacation spot itself is what in the end brings passengers.

United’s head of community planning, Patrick Quayle, talking in Christchurch. DAVID SLOTNICK/THE POINTS GUY

That advertising and marketing might be seen on United’s web site any time you go surfing to ebook a flight or verify a reservation, and is very seen in United’s hub cities.

About 70% of United’s Polaris site visitors originates in hub cities, Quayle stated.

“All we’re doing is capitalizing off of those superb hub property and using them,” he stated. “We will fly a special construction and route portfolio combine than the opposite two U.S. carriers.”

The airline additionally hosted just a few content material creators and influencers on the inaugural flight, who will proceed on with the airline for per week exploring the South Island — a part of its ongoing technique to advertise and market the brand new leisure locations it is added over current years.

“The flight is about getting individuals to the vacation spot,” Mary Moser, a United supervisor of promoting and social content material, instructed TPG following the flight. “It is the entire package deal — it’s good to need to go to the place the flight is taking you.”

“Influencers particularly are such a trusted supply of data,” she added. “To allow them to actually present individuals the place is nice to go, what to do whenever you get there, and the way to get there.”

Onboard United’s inaugural flight to Christchurch

Regardless, United pulled out all the stops for the Christchurch inaugural, a signature for the airline on these flights.

The airline hosted a pre-flight occasion for enterprise class passengers and a smattering of VIPs within the Polaris Lounge, with New Zealand-themed bites and wines, together with the prospect for passengers, crew and United workers to mingle and chat.


Among the many attendees was a handful of vacationers who met by way of an unofficial Fb group — not affiliated with the airline — for United MileagePlus members with 1K or International Providers standing. They made a behavior of attending inaugural for enjoyable, with some members turning proper again round to go dwelling, and others taking the chance for a brief trip.

“Flying is my completely satisfied place,” stated Jay Etzenbach, a United International Providers member who flew on the inaugural. “Nobody bothers you, you’ll be able to chill out and have a drink, and see a brand new place whenever you land.”

“Plus it is nice to see different people who find themselves into the identical issues,” he added. “Speaking concerning the geeky flight stuff is enjoyable.”

Passenger Warren Rieutort-Louis forward of United’s inaugural flight to Christchurch. DAVID SLOTNICK/THE POINTS GUY

Some passengers have been even dressed up for the event, in garb starting from themed t-shirts to a full Gandalf costume from Lord of the Rings, which was famously filmed all throughout New Zealand, worn by passenger Warren Rieutort-Louis — an enormous hit, which had fellow passengers asking for pictures with him.


The celebration continued on the gate for all passengers, with the identical snacks obtainable, Māori performers and speeches from numerous executives from the airline, airport, and New Zealand consulate.


The airplane for the inaugural may very well be seen from the gate — a Boeing 787-9, adorned with a brand new minimalist livery marking the New Zealand service (United plans to run the Christchurch service with a smaller 787-8, however upgauged the airplane for the inaugural to have extra premium seats obtainable, and to fly the particular livery plane)

Onboard, it was a typical United -9 Dreamliner, with 48 Polaris enterprise class seats, 21 Premium Plus premium financial system seats, and 188 seats in the primary financial system cabin (together with 39 Financial system Plus seats with further legroom).


Whereas the airplane itself might have been the same old United product, nearly all the things else was particular for the flight.

The standard bedding package deal, amenity equipment and headphones have been ready at every Polaris seat. However there was additionally an cute teddy bear in a United sweater, sporting a U.S.-New Zealand flag pin and holding a celebratory “Take away Earlier than Flight” type keychain for the inaugural.


There was additionally a celebratory placard together with a postcard, and a particular menu for the flight.

Shortly after boarding, flight attendants handed out a particular set of pajamas, a typical United inaugural goody for Polaris passengers. United typically has pajamas obtainable on demand in enterprise class on flights longer than 14 hours.


The flight attendants additionally handed out a welcome be aware from the crew, which included a keychain with the flight’s info. The entire flight attendants I spoke with stated they have been excited to be working the inaugural. Their pleasure actually appeared real; the entire crew, led by purser Amy Hurst-Kownacki, gave the impression to be in an exceptionally nice temper for the complete flight, and have been altogether excellent all through.

Typically, inaugural flights have United’s common catering, perhaps with the menu choices chosen primarily based across the vacation spot.

For this flight, nonetheless, United added 4 particular entrées that have been a step past what you may discover on a traditional flight.


These choices included a rack of lamb from New Zealand, Alaskan halibut, a bone-in rooster breast, and a vegetarian udon stir fry.

A supervisor for United on the airport stated that the particular menu, which was developed and ready by United’s menu planning and catering operations groups individually from the scheduled menu, was designed to have fun the hyperlink between the 2 places. It additionally doubled as a chance to check and trial completely different ideas, a few of which the airline may convey to its regular catering sooner or later.

I used to be torn on which dish to strive — the lamb appeared like an apparent alternative, given the vacation spot, however I made a decision to go together with the fish for one thing a bit lighter.


It was more durable than superb for halibut — fish might be tough to get proper on an airplane — however not too powerful — I nonetheless loved it. The flavors, in the meantime, have been nice. The charred lemon was particularly tasty when squeezed over the fish and rice.


There was a particular pavlova dessert loaded from a San Francisco bakery, however I could not assist however go for United’s conventional sundae.

Given the late 11:30 p.m. departure, I used to be exhausted by the point dinner was over. I watched a little bit of the Lord of the Rings trilogy (a little bit of an in-flight custom for me, particularly once I’m working, and at all times initially of a flight to New Zealand), and managed to sleep for about 4 hours.

There was a snack cart on the entrance of the cabin, so passengers may seize a fast chunk through the flight. There have been additionally just a few mid-flight sizzling dishes obtainable, however I noticed just a few leftover pavlovas on the cart and determined to strive it. I am glad I did — it was stellar.


I managed to sleep for an additional hour or two, and wakened in time for breakfast. I opted for the pancakes, a dish which was pulled from the menu for United’s flight between Newark and Dubai. Pancakes seem to be they need to be simple on a airplane, however they will typically find yourself dry or crumbly. These, nonetheless, have been glorious.


In case passengers forgot that they have been on an inaugural flight, the method and arrival at Christchurch served up reminder after reminder. On brief closing method, after we have been simply wanting the runway, a crowd of planespotters may very well be seen at a park off our left aspect, and as we landed, a crowd of some hundred may very well be seen watching off our proper.

There have been extra spectators in nearly each publicly accessible space


There was a water-cannon salute by two airport fireplace vehicles, plus a helicopter flying overhead taking pictures of the arrival plane.


After passport management and customs, there have been a few speeches within the arrivals corridor and a cake to have fun. A couple of brief hours later, the inaugural return flight took off.

To this point, Quayle and different United executives say they have been proud of most of their new routes, and stress that they are dedicated to taking the time to develop markets and assist stimulate demand till it is sustainable.


With Christchurch for instance that encapsulates United’s technique, it is efficiency will seemingly be an incredible indicator of how that method is working — and what sorts of locations the airline may unveil subsequent.

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