When it comes to travelling as a family with a son with a disability, the flight is probably the most crucial element for us to get right. BJ finds the time it takes, the confined space and lack of activity difficult.
We tend to be loyal customers to Qantas because we’ve always found their crews go out of their way to assist where possible and I guess we’ve always been nervous to venture beyond, just in case we don’t get the same level of service and consideration. But, our Have Wheelchair Will Travel community has always been positive in their comments about Air New Zealand and the assistance offered when travelling with a disability, so we decided to give it a go.
AIR NEW ZEALAND – ACCESSIBLE TRAVEL REVIEW
WHY WE BOOKED AIR NEW ZEALAND
Booking our trip to New Zealand in peak season and not a long time in advance, we found Air New Zealand was the cheapest option for the days and times we were looking to travel. With a flying time of just over 3 hours we figured it wouldn’t be a disaster even if it wasn’t as good as we’d experienced in the past with other airlines. And let’s face it, when it comes to travel, any money saved is a bonus.
HOW AIR NEW ZEALAND RATED
After three flights with Air New Zealand, we can’t rate them highly enough. It was an absolute pleasure flying with them and their staff are outstanding. We particularly appreciated the fact the staff were happy to go with our suggestions. They were accommodating as to what would be the most comfortable for us and despite it being the opposite to ‘normal’, they ran with it. For example, we prefer to board last or towards the end so BJ isn’t on the plane any longer than necessary. That wasn’t a problem.
That’s the short version of the review but for those wanting the nitty gritty, read on to find out why we loved our Air New Zealand experience.
BEFORE THE FLIGHT
It was obvious before we flew that we were in trouble with the usual luggage allowance of one 23kg bag of luggage per person. With equipment, repair kits, all manner of clothing for the variety of weather we expected, we knew we needed an additional bag. I phoned Air New Zealand and explained one bag would contain medical equipment (namely our portable toilet) and was there any way we could have an additional bag added to our allowance without charge. They needed further information regarding the equipment of course but once it was cleared by the medical team, we were good to go with the additional bag. This was a relief.
AT THE AIRPORT
Self-check-in kiosks are not my friend. I understand they are efficient for the majority of the population but with additional needs and circumstances the kiosks just don’t beat a human for service. The kiosk wanted to charge us for the additional bag, but staff soon stepped in and everything was sorted. We then took the opportunity to chat about our seating needs. Due to BJ’s additional movement caused by his cerebral palsy we asked if the seat in front of him could be blocked (dependent on availability). This isn’t always possible but if it can happen it makes it more comfortable for him as it means no-one can recline which makes the already limited space around him even more confined. I’m sure it also assists in the comfort of passengers as it avoids BJ accidentally knocking their seat or pushing harder than usual on the in-flight entertainment screen. Air New Zealand happily blocked the row in front of us and moved us further forward on the flight, putting us in the second row. We were immediately happy travellers and new fans of the airline.
ACCESS TO THE PLANE
At Queenstown Airport and Auckland Airport we were happy to test the Air New Zealand Ambilift. We’ve never been in one before and they are genius. So much more comfortable than the cherry picker lift.
An additional benefit of the Ambilift is its size, which makes it more efficient being able to load multiple passengers with a mobility restriction at one time. In poor weather it also offers a dry experience compared to the open cherry picker.
The Ambilift uses the door on the opposite side of the aircraft to where the passengers are loading via the stairs.
TARMAC LOADING IN SYDNEY
We weren’t as fond of the loading process at Sydney Airport where we boarded a bus to transfer across the tarmac to be loaded via cherry picker on to the flight. The bus is wheelchair accessible and staff were amazing but it’s just another process added to the travel day and I’m all about streamlining and speed.
Sydney Airport ground staff somehow messed up and we were delayed on the tarmac with no cherry picker available for BJ. Given BJ can walk with assistance we chose not to delay the flight and walked him up the stairs. When we arrived in Queenstown the pilot came out to apologise for the situation in Sydney. We thought this was lovely because it was not the airline’s fault, it was the ground staff who had left us hanging.
Crew on board couldn’t have been more helpful, checking in with us during the flight (but not over the top), friendly and appropriate with their interactions with BJ.
The safety briefing is the best I’ve seen with a vibrant and funny approach which made me watch it on all three flights. Not only was it amusing but it also included wheelchair users in an active way in one scene.
Food was good but be aware it isn’t automatically included in your fare. Check when booking if you’d like it included as “the works”. If you don’t have food included and wish to purchase food on the flight, cash isn’t accepted. You can order from the menu using the in-flight entertainment system and with your credit card. Hubby recommends the chicken and brie sandwich.
I’m not usually a fan of airline food but Air New Zealand had good food. Be aware if you are putting in a meal request for a child who is a vegetarian, request a vegetarian meal, not a child’s meal. We overheard one family’s issue when their child received a child’s meal which wasn’t vegetarian. See, being nosey can be informative!
We were lucky to score bulk-head seats on the return trip to Sydney. For us, this is the dream seating. These seats can only be used by a person with a disability if they are NOT in an exit row. Our general tip is to always check-in for your flight a minimum of three hours in advance for an international flight. This will give you the best chance of changing seating and putting in special requests.
While on board I took the opportunity to check out the Skycouch seats. The crew happily took the time to give me a demonstration of how the seats work. Air New Zealand continue to win awards for this design, and I can imagine it may help make travel more comfortable for many.
The seats are regular economy seats with a footrest which locks into place making a solid base. Each seat operates individually so as an example, if you are travelling with a child who needs to lie down, they could lie across two of the seats with the footrest locked into position but you could remain seated as normal. Or, you could have the whole row and lie together across the seats. Take a look at the Air New Zealand site for photos of people using them to get a good idea of how they work.
HOW THE WHEELCHAIR SURVIVED
One of the biggest concerns with air travel is whether the wheelchair will be at the plane door to meet us, avoiding the dreaded airline chairs and will it be damaged in any way. I can report BJ’s wheelchair met us at the door on each flight in a timely manner and there was no damage.
ACCESSIBLE SERVICES OFFERED
Air New Zealand offers the Eagle 2 lifting service for domestic and international jet services only, from Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin airports. With suitable advance notice they will do all possible to access an Eagle lift from ground handlers in Sydney and Melbourne.
Due to the layout of the Business Premier cabin the Eagle 2 is not able to be used, however on flights to/from the US Air New Zealand staff are able to perform a transfer using specially designed slide board, slide belts and a slide sheet. You can read more about this service here.
All Air New Zealand aircraft are equipped with a special torso harness to provide additional support and restraint in the aircraft seat. This needs to be requested at the time of booking and on board the aircraft. Due to FAA regulations passengers requiring a torso harness for support are unable to be accommodated in Business Premier or in Premium Economy Spaceseats due to the harness interfering with the in-seat airbag. You can read more about it here.
Travel with a wheelchair
Air New Zealand prefer written instructions regarding your wheelchair as they understand they are uniquely designed. They want to ensure they can pack, stow and reassemble your wheelchair as quickly as possible. You can read more about travelling with a wheelchair on Air New Zealand here.
WOULD WE FLY AIR NEW ZEALAND AGAIN?
We would definitely fly with Air New Zealand again. If they had A380 aircraft with the larger accessible toilet we would also use them for long-haul flights. Until then, we won’t hesitate to use them on shorter flights.
This is not a sponsored post, we paid in full for our flights and at no time did the airline, crew or reservations staff know we have a website. Air New Zealand just offer awesome service!
We’d love to hear your positive airline experiences if you’ve had one.