Personal touch to give carrier the edge
Airline expects every customer's long-haul journey to be a special event with its new onboard feature, writes Robin Lynam
Most seasoned business travellers find themselves indebted to the initiative and connections of a good hotel concierge. Now that kind of personalised service, previously available only on the ground, can be called on in the sky.
Air New Zealand is about to launch what group general manager Ed Sims believes to be an aviation industry first with the introduction of an in-flight concierge service.
Ultimately, the airline intends to employ up to 90 concierge employees, who will be dedicated to making every customer's long-haul journey 'a special event'.
Air New Zealand will begin to feature the service on flights starting in the next few weeks.
Most of these employees will be based in New Zealand, although some will fly from other countries. All will be experts on New Zealand and on the destinations to which the carrier flies.
Mr Sims said he was not aware of any other airline in the world offering such a service, and is hoping it will provide Air New Zealand with a significant competitive edge. 'International airline concierges will be a combination of travel advisers, disrupt managers, loyalty experts and destination experts, focused on supporting every customer travelling with us,' he explained.
The concierges' duties could include escorting passengers to and from the aircraft, recommending activities on the ground, assisting with onward bookings, supporting passengers affected by weather disruptions, advising them on managing their frequent-flyer miles, or talking them through the finer points of Air New Zealand's in-flight wine list.
This last service is not to be considered a trivial matter. Wine lovers often look forward to flying with Air New Zealand.
Last month, for the third year in a row, the carrier walked away with the prestigious trophy for Best Business Class Red Wine at the 2007 Cellars in the Sky awards in London. It was for the Martinborough Pinot Noir 2005.
The judges also gave the airline a special award, 'Most Informative Wine List', for the detailed in-flight wine booklet it produces for each new wine cycle. There are passengers who may need a bit of help with recommendations.
The concierge service will launch shortly, with the first international services to have concierges on board, on flights between Auckland and Hong Kong, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Vancouver.
'We continuously develop new products and services to enhance our passengers' travel experience,' said Mr Sims, adding that customer feedback had prompted the initiative.
Over the past two years the number of customers choosing the airline for services to, from and within New Zealand had increased, creating new customer service challenges.
'A number of cabin crew have told us that it's increasingly difficult for them to spend as much time as they'd like with each customer due to our full cabins,' Mr Sims acknowledged.
'This brand-new concierge role will ensure that every one travelling with Air New Zealand - no matter how full the aircraft - receives the personal attention they deserve and the advice they need.' Quite a few of those passengers will be boarding the plane in Hong Kong.
Since Air New Zealand launched its London service in November 2006, the carrier has become a popular option on that busy route, partly for reasons of service style and partly because of discounted fares.
'The demand for business and leisure travel to London and Europe remains strong and we are encouraged by booking levels.
'Our daily service offers travellers comfort and convenience with many additional features and a unique Kiwi style,' Mr Sims said.
There are also good reasons for members of the Hong Kong business community to visit New Zealand and vice versa.
There is significant Hong Kong investment in New Zealand property, while New Zealand companies have long favoured Hong Kong as a base for expansion of their activities into Asia.
Last year, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen called on New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark to promote closer economic ties.
Air New Zealand has steadily expanded its services between Auckland and both Hong Kong and the mainland in recent years.
The airline operates a total of 21 weekly flights out of Hong Kong and Shanghai to Auckland and London, and is the only airline offering nonstop services between Auckland and the mainland.
The service connecting Auckland and London, via Hong Kong, is one of the world's longest journeys by air. This London service also gives Air New Zealand's Hong Kong passengers the opportunity of a special round the world trip.
'Our Round-The-World offer is a special product demonstrating Air New Zealand's global network,' Mr Sims explained.
'A typical itinerary would be Auckland-Los Angeles-London-Hong Kong-Auckland, targeting the high-end leisure travellers.'
The mainland service is a relatively recent initiative. Air New Zealand established its presence in Shanghai in November 2006 by launching a thrice-weekly flight to Auckland.
After a year of operation, the service was increased to five times per week to handle growing demand.
All flights between Shanghai and Auckland are operated with Boeing 777-200ER aircraft.
Direct Auckland-Beijing flights will be introduced on July 18, just in time for the summer Olympics in August.
The new non-stop service, which is subject to the mainland's regulatory and operating approvals, will initially operate twice a week using Boeing 777-200ER aircraft and increase to three services per week in November.
Air New Zealand has offices in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong.