Hotel review – Mercure Auckland

By Steve Biddle, in , posted: 19-Oct-2014 14:58

Anybody who follows my blog will have spotted a number of hotel and airline reviews that have crept in during the last year. While I love tech, I love travel even more. I love writing about things and getting to interact with people with similar interests, and get a lot of emails from people who have read my flight or hotel reviews asking me questions that the airline or hotel website may not have answers to.

As I sat down to write this post I stopped to think how many flights I’ve taken in the past year (somewhere around 45 it seems), and how many nights I’ve stayed in hotels (somewhere around 50). As I’ve got older my travel habits have changed -  it’s safe to say the luxuries of flying business class and staying in nice hotels is something I really enjoy, but I’m still a backpacker at heart. I’ve met some great friends while staying at backpackers, and have stayed at a number in the past year. I’m just as happy staying at a backpackers as I am a 5* hotel, and have very different expectations for both when it comes to the product on offer, and the level of service.

I’ve stayed at plenty of Auckland hotels in recent years and have found some pretty average offerings from Accor. I stayed at the Ibis Styles with a friend a year or so ago and we were both left almost in shock at the state of the rooms. Yes they’re very compact, and the beds weren’t great, but that’s OK. When you’re paying $79 for a low cost inner city hotel room from Accor’s low cost budget brand you have to expect that sort of thing and my expectations were set to that level. What you don’t expect to get is a bathroom ceiling completely covered in mould on the bathroom, a rotting door, and a handle that’s about to fall off. If you want sleep it’s not the best place to say either – when reception have earplugs on the counter to combat the noise from the nearby bar below you realise what a big issue it is.

On another visit I stayed at the Pullman which Accor pitch at the high end of the market, and had a room which had a lot of dust behind the door and a buffet breakfast experience that was absolute dreadful. A lack of food was put down to “we’re busy”, while staff seemed to be walking around with no real idea of what they were supposed to actually be doing. A complaint at check-out resulted in an offer of a 2-for-1 breakfast the next time I stayed there. I’m sorry Accor but that’s not a satisfactory solution to a problem – expecting a customer to pay full price for a bad experience in the promise it’ll be “better next time” doesn’t fit well in my world, because there probably won’t be a next time. In a competitive marketplace such as hotels I doubt I’ll ever be back.

So all of this leads me to my stay at the Mercure Auckland.  I’ve stayed there in the past and my expectations were of a fairly stock standard middle of the road hotel. The hotel is located on Customs St East and is right next door to Britomart - Auckland’s downtown train station and transport hub. Buses to the airport and trains are literally 2 minutes walk away. The hotel features 13 floor with the top floor featuring a bar and restaurant that has great views over Auckland harbour.

I checked into the hotel at around 2pm on a Saturday, the front desk staff were super friendly and efficient and all were immaculately presented.

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The 11th floor room was fairly standard in terms of layout and size. It featured good views of the Sky Tower, a good sized bathroom with a shower over the bath.

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Unfortunately that’s about the only nice things I have to say about my stay. It really does rate as one of the worst hotels I’ve ever stayed in for the price, anywhere in the world. I’ve stayed in better backpackers in Auckland for a mere fraction of the price that the Mercure charge for a room.

After arriving in the room I went to brush to teeth and found that after turning on the tap the water stopped. 15 minutes later it still wasn’t back, but hey, plumbing problems occur so that’s not something I can really fault the hotel on too much. The plumbing problems were the least of the issues however – this hotel is in such a bad need of a refurbishment that I can really only describe it as a disgrace. Is I mentioned earlier I have very different expectations depending on where I’m staying and believe my expectations are very fair. I don’t expect to visit a middle of the range hotel that I’ve paid $135 per night for and see something that I’d expect to see in a $35 per night backpackers. That’s the exact scenario I walked into.

The state of the interior of the room was terrible. Clearly the room had been given a green feature wall at some point – it’s just a shame they never took the lamp shade off the wall to paint under it. It looked so tacky I was lost for words. All other walls showed significant damage and scratches.

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The bed itself was also terrible and was certainly due for replacement. The sheets however were nice, and in line with most hotels now there was no unhygienic bedspread.

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I thought I’d check out the TV. One of my pet hates in any hotel is incorrectly configured aspect ratios when a 16:9 TV features video in a 16:9 format that’s then centre cut resulting in a 4:3 picture which is then stretched vertically resulting the picture being chopped off on the left and the right. While some channels were fine, TV2 and Maori Television weren’t and exhibited this problem.

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But at least the TV did work – it doesn’t look like whoever installed it knew how to crimp F connectors.

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And while we’re on cables – I wonder what the story is with this mess that’s hanging under the desk? Not to mention the chair which looks like it’s seen better days.

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Could the bathroom be better? Nope. The front panel was falling off.

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The door was rotten from the water.

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The silicon around the bath looked was looking pretty tired.

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And there was a great view of the dust while having a shower.

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The hotel provides free WiFI in the lobby – and is limited to 30 mins or 50 Megabytes per 24 hours. Judging by the speeds on offer you’re going to struggle to get even a basic webpage to load.

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But these speeds are also going to be impacted by the WiFi equipment on offer – a D-Link AP with –77dBm signal strength. This is very poor with best practice when installing WiFi is to aim for -70dBm or better.

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There is no WiFi coverage in rooms, instead access is via Ethernet cable. Usage is charged at 68c per minute up to $14.90 for 2 hours or 100MB, $29.90 per 24 hours or 200MB, or $115 per 7 days or 1GB. Usage in excess of this is charged at 10c per MB, or you can opt to have your connection speed shaped to continue using it at no charge.

The check-out process was quick and efficient but (un)luckily for them they never asked me how my stay was.

Writing this feels like a bit of a rant which is something I don’t aim for on my blog, but this would have to rank as one of the most disappointing hotel experiences I’ve ever had. If the Mercure where charging $35 for a room I wouldn’t be writing this, but when they’re charging $135 for a very sub standard product it deserves others to be wary of what they’re getting themselves into when booking a room. My advice is to look elsewhere – there are plenty of far better hotels in Auckland for a similar price.



Why is my WiFi slow? Why does my WiFi keep dropping out?

By Steve Biddle, in , posted: 5-Oct-2014 14:28

Complaints about poor WiFi performance are one of the biggest issues facing the average internet user right now. With most people now relying on phones, tablets and laptops for their Internet fix, the days of a cabled Ethernet connection being the norm is well and truly over. Unlike a cabled Ethernet connection which offers a guaranteed level of performance, WiFi is incredibly complex with many variables that will impact performance and reliability. Dealing with wireless performance issues is a nightmare for the helpdesk of the average Internet Service Provider (ISP), with poor speeds being one of the biggest complaints from customers, and something they can do very little about as it’s something they have absolutely no control over.

First off lets be very clear with one thing. WiFi is not, and never will be a replacement for a cabled Ethernet connection. It will always be a convenient, complementary solution. Unless the laws of physics are changed at some point in the future there will never be an exception to this rule.

The first WiFi capable devices first appeared in the market in the late 90s with a standard known as 802.11b, offering headline theoretical speeds of up to 11Mbps. From the 802.11b standard the 802.11g standard was created, delivering an improved headline theoretical speed of 54Mbps. By 2009 the 802.11n standard was ratified, delivering headline speeds of up to 300Mbps, and by 2011 we were seeing the first 802.11ac gear promising headline speeds of up to 867Mbps (or even greater from some vendors).

The issue of theoretical vs real world throughput is something that we need to cover here. Every headline wireless speed you see mentioned, whether it be 11Mbps, 54Mbps, 150Mbps, 300Mbps or 867Mbps is a theoretical maximum speed. For various reasons it’s impossible for these sorts of speeds to ever be achieved in in the real world, primarily because they don’t take into account any overheads that exist in the WiFi protocol at Layer 1, and overheads at Layer 2 and Layer 3 in the open systems interconnection (OSI) model which form the basis of all data communications. They also don’t factor in WiFI being a half duplex medium, meaning that a WiFi device can’t transmit and receive data at the same time. It has to (very quickly) alternate between both, much like two people talking on a walkie talkie. This differs to an Ethernet connection which is full duplex and can transmit and receive data at the same time like two people having a real world conversation. As you’re transferring data across your WiFi connection you’ll be using one of  two data protocols, Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) or User Datagram Protocol (UDP). Because TCP relies on an acknowledgement (ACK) packet (think of a walkie talker user responding to every message saying they’re received it before the other person can send their next message), TCP performance over WiFi will typically be significantly less than UDP performance as UDP does not rely on ACK packets.

In the real world a 802.11b network will deliver maximum speeds of around 5Mbps, a 802.11g network will typically deliver maximum speeds of around 20Mbps, a 802.11n network will with 20Mhz channels (N150) will typically deliver maximum speeds of around 40Mbps, a 802.11n network with 40Mhz channels (N300) will typically deliver maximum speeds of around 80Mbps, and a 802.11ac network will typically deliver between 100Mbps and 350Mbps depending on channel width and the brand of hardware you’re using. These are all maximum real world speeds, and in the real world issues such as signal strength and congestion from other wireless networks will mean you may not get speeds anywhere near these - these issues are exactly what I’ll get onto next. Understanding what impacts WiFi performance isn’t straight forward as many of the key factors rely on a level of radio frequency (RF) engineering and protocols, however I’ll attempt to try to explain a few of the major concepts in something resembling simple English.

Lets start by explaining the most important principal of radio communications - noise floor. Unless you live somewhere with no neighbours within a 20km radius (or live inside a faraday cage), you’re continually being exposed to a myriad of radio waves from other wireless networks along with other sources of RF interference such as microwave ovens, cordless phones, mobile phones, video senders, baby monitors, and Bluetooth devices. Noise floor (like signal strength) is measured in dBm. dBm uses a logarithmic scale for measurement.

A typical noise floor value in the 2.4GHz band can be anywhere from -80 dBm to -110 dBm depending on the level of background noise in your environment from other sources. When you connect a WiFi device to a WiFi access point or router you’ll likely see an indication of signal strength on your device, typically showing bars. This shows a good approximation of signal strength, but isn’t telling you the full story. Many WiFi devices and access points also show the signal strength of the connected device, which will be shown in dBm. If you’re within close proximity of your WiFi access point you’ll potentially see a signal level of  -50 dBm, as you start moving away from the access point this level will increase downwards. Once your signal level approaches the noise floor, link quality (and overall WiFi performance) will be affected. Once the signal strength reaches the noise floor, maintaining a WiFi connection will be impossible as each device is unable to “hear” the other device due to the level of background noise. All building materials cause a drop in signal strength which can be anywhere from a few dBm upwards - a regular plasterboard wall at home may reduce WiFi signal strength by 5 dBm, whereas a steel reinforced concrete wall with can easily impact signal levels by 20dBm.

To maintain a good quality WiFi connection you need to ensure your signal level is stronger than the noise floor. This is known as the signal to noise ratio (SNR). A SNR of 20 dBm or greater is recommended, meaning that if your noise floor is in the range of –90 to -95 dBm you’ll need to ensure your signal strength is at least –70 to –75 dBm to ensure a good connection. If you live in a very crowded inner city apartment block with a large amount of background noise and interference from other WiFi networks, you may find your noise floor is well below this figure and it could easily be in the vicinity of –80dB. This type of environment is when major problems start to occur, as it means you will need to be very close to your WiFi access point or router to maintain a good connection – but even then maintaining good performance may be difficult due to the way the WiFi protocol works, which is something I’ll discuss later on.

I like to explain noise floor in a very simple way by comparing it to people talking in a room. If you’re in a large room with one other person you’ll easily be able to have a conversation with them. If 300 other people and a DJ turn up playing music, they’re all creating noise. As this level of background noise increases you’ll find that maintaining a conversation with the person next to you becomes very difficult, and even when you shout you may not be heard. This pretty much mirrors what happens to WiFi when background  RF noise effectively creates an environment where maintaining a reliable WiFi connection can be very difficult.

Now that I’ve explained the concept of noise floor, we’ll now look at the issue of frequencies. Two frequency bands are used by WiFi – 2.4GHz and 5GHz. Today 2.4GHz is still the primary frequency used by WiFi devices. Most tablets, phones and laptops sold within the past 1-2 years will also support the 5GHz band, however the number of access points and home routers that support this band is still small. Both of these bands use blocks of spectrum that are openly usable by anybody in most countries in the world without a licence, meaning that there are other devices out there that also use these same frequency bands. In the 2.4GHz band, Bluetooth devices, baby monitors, older cordless phones, video senders and microwave ovens all use the same frequency band as WiFi which means they all have the potential to cause interference and impact the performance of your WiFi. Most modern cordless phones use the DECT standard which uses the 1800Mhz band and will not cause interference with 2.4GHz WiFi, however in New Zealand in particular Uniden sold tens of thousands of 2.4GHz cordless phones until they stopped selling these a few years ago. A 2.4GHz cordless phone is a significant cause of interference with 2.4GHz WiFi and should be replaced with a modern DECT phone to eliminate the issue. Likewise turning on your microwave oven can cause a jump in noise that can impact WiFi.. Baby monitors and video senders that use the 2.4GHz or 5GHz band will also impact WiFi performance.

In the 2.4GHz band there are 13 channels available for use in New Zealand. In many other countries (including the USA) only 11 channels are available. Each of these channels is 10MHz apart. This in itself creates a major problem for 2.4GHz WiFi, as from 802.11g onwards 20MHz channels are now the norm, meaning that to avoid interfering with other WiFi networks, only 3 channels are actually available for use that don’t overlap with other channels. These are 1, 6 and 11. Using channel 13 in New Zealand is often a good idea as it is often less crowded, however it creates plenty of problems as many WiFi capable devices are configured for the US market where only channels 1-11 are allowed, and such devices will not be able to connect to a network transmitting on channel 13. 

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Using a 20MHz channel meant a maximum theoretical throughput of 150Mbps with the Wireless N 150 standard, which for many people wasn’t fast enough - people wanted faster speeds. How did they achieve that? They simply moved to 40MHz wide channels, and Wireless N 300 was born. It doesn’t require a genius to realise that suddenly the 2.4GHz spectrum became a lot  more crowded, and that overlapping channels from different networks became a major problem.

In the 5GHz band channels are placed 20MHz apart so overlaps don’t exist like they do in the 2.4GHz band if you’re using standard 20MHz channels, however recent additions such as the new 802.11ac standard can use channels up to 80MHz wide (and the standard allowing up to 160MHz channels), meaning the same challenges that exist in the 2.4GHz band will eventually occur in the 5GHz band as the number of devices using this band increases.

Due to the simple way WiFi works all other WiFi networks out there using the same channel or overlapping channels are creating interference which will ultimately impact the performance of your WiFi network. The WiFi standard uses something known as Clear Channel Assessment (CCA) to determine if other nearby WiFi networks on the same channel(s) are transmitting or receiving data. If it detects activity from another network it may not be able to transmit or receive data. Likewise when you’re transmitting or receiving data on your WiFi network, CCA on nearby WiFi networks will detect this activity. Think of this as like multiple conversations in a room with multiple people, where only two people are able to have a conversation at a time and all other conversations must stop before you can talk – in the WiFi world the impact of overlapping networks is a significant slow down in WiFi speeds and/or other performance issues.

For this very reason 2.4GHz WiFi performance in many urban environments is now significantly degraded. If you’re living in an environment such as an inner city apartment where there may be hundreds of nearby networks, you’re basically living in the worst possible environment possible for WiFi, and in some cases really have to be thankful your WiFi even works at all. The harsh reality is that fixing the 2.4GHz WiFi band isn’t possible – the solution is to upgrade your equipment to support the 5GHz band if reliable WiFi performance is important to you. While the 5GHz band will offer better performance, it also doesn’t propagate (travel) through open air and building materials as well due to the higher frequency. This is both the biggest benefit, and also the biggest downside of 5GHz WiFi – your 5GHz signal probably won’t leave your house and cause interference with your neighbours WiFi network, but you will also find that in your home a 5GHz signal will not travel through internal walls as well as a 2.4GHz signal. As we move towards even higher frequency bands for WiFi with a 60GHz standard now in place, we’re moving towards a future where individual access points in each room of your house either cabled back via Ethernet cabling or using Ethernet over Power adapters will become the standard way of providing WiFi coverage in the home.

Now that I’ve explained  a few of the reasons why your WiFi can be impacted, I’ll offer a few tips on how to improve your WiFi connection.

First up is placement of your modem/router or access point. Many people are going to have this located next to their primary PC. The simple reality is that a WiFi connection will always work best the closer you are to your router or access point; so if this is located at one end of your home, you could easily have poor coverage at the other end of your home. As explained above, WiFi signals degrade as they travel though building materials within your home so placing your modem/router or access point in a central location is typically going to deliver the best outcome. If you have a big house the reality is that a single WiFi access point will probably not be sufficient to deliver adequate coverage. In this situation the best solution is a secondary access point that’s cabled back to your primary modem/router via Ethernet cable or Ethernet over Power adapters. Different brands of equipment have different levels of performance so upgrading your equipment can also significantly improve your performance. Discussing the pros and cons of different hardware isn’t something I’m going to write about though, so opening a discussion thread in a forum site such as Geekzone is the best place to discuss such things. Newer hardware that supports the 802.11ac standard will also likely use antennas that support beamforming which can deliver significantly improved performance. Ruckus (who arguably make some of the best WiFi equipment on the market) have a great white paper on beamforming that you can read here.

The next step is to ensure that your WiFi network is operating on the best available channel. What determines “best” isn’t something that’s easy to answer. If your WiFi hardware has it’s channel set to auto rather than having a channel manually configured there is a good chance it has probably picked what it believes is the best channel to use. Auto mode does have it’s downsides though, and if you’re in a very noisy environment your device may change channels regularly and performance may be impacted. If you have a 802.11n 300Mbps device it’s probably defaulting to 40Mhz channels, and if you live in a noisy environment with lots of other networks you may find your WiFi performance improves if you drop this back to using 20Mhz channels. There are various applications (my favourite is inSSIDer) for Android mobile phones and PC’s that will show you surrounding networks, and let you see what channels are the least crowded. If you’re using an iPhone you’re out of luck – Apple won’t allow applications such as this in the App Store.

You also need to be aware that not all hardware is created equal – it’s not uncommon to find home routers that can only support somewhere in the vicinity of 10 wireless devices. If you connect more WiFi devices than your router can support, you’ll start to encounter problems. You will also encounter problems if you have lots of devices connected with poor signal strength – if you have devices connected at one end of the house with very low signal strength, this will affect the performance of WiFi devices that are closer and have good signal strength.

And lastly ensure that power levels are set lower, not higher. Many people assume that more power = better, but in reality this is not the case. Turning your router or access point to maximum power settings will typically result in reduced maximum throughput and reduced receive sensitivity, meaning your level of performance may actually be worse. High power devices also mean more noise is being created, and this simply makes the 2.4GHz band worse for others. Setting your power level to a lower setting in many situations will actually improve your WiFi performance.

One common piece of hardware people are buying these days in an attempt to improve performance is a so called “WiFi extender”. These devices work by picking up a WiFi signal and rebroadcasting it, meaning it can improve performance in your home if you have low coverage areas. There are two major issues with these devices however – the first being that they will typically halve the maximum speed of your WiFi network as they have to pick up and then rebroadcast the network, and the second being that they are often not installed correctly. As the extender needs to connect wirelessly to your main access point or router, it’s no good placing it where there is poor coverage – the device needs to be placed in a location where coverage is good such as a mid way point between these areas.

In summary, WiFI is far from simple. These days people have an expectation that just because a WiFI network exists, that it should work, and work well -  in reality nothing can be further from the truth.



Why aren’t NZ taxi companies interested in competing with Uber?

By Steve Biddle, in , posted: 30-Sep-2014 07:42

Disruptive. It’s a word that I don’t like, but it has become a very common catchphrase these days to describe the now common scenario of a new entrant causing grief for existing players in a market. Right now disruptive new entrants in the market are causing grief for taxi companies worldwide.

I’ve done a lot of travelling in my life, and taxis are something that I’ve used a lot both in NZ and overseas. It’s something where the experience is the very similar right across the world, and mysteriously the instances of highly opinionated middle aged male drivers who love talking about politics while listening to talkback radio isn’t just something that’s unique to New Zealand. In many cities in the world the taxi experience is a unique one – catch a Black Cab in London and you’ll find yourself with a driver who’s spent years learning “The Knowledge” – a test involving memorising over 20000 streets and 20000 landmarks in Central London, and can probably tell you more about London and it’s history than any guide book.

The launch of Uber in the US in 2010 really became the first true competition to hit the taxi market. As the taxi market is often regulated or tightly controlled in many countries, the market in many ways mirrored that of a monopoly. While multiple companies may exist in these markets, pricing, and in some cases vehicle requirements are set by authorities, meaning the price and experience is often essentially the same, no matter what company you pick. Uber’s entry into the “rideshare” (as they call it) market was resulted in a product that very different to what already existed. Rather than the old school experience of hailing a cab in the street (something that can prove very difficult in the US) and then having to have cash to pay for it, the whole experience could be done straight from your mobile phone.

I started to write this blog post last month after having used Uber a handful of times in recent trips to the US. Since then I’ve used Uber a couple of times in Auckland, and we’ve also seen the launch of Uber in Wellington a couple of weeks ago. I’ve loved every Uber experience so far, and it’s something I’ll be happy to continue to use in the future.

What I do need to make clear at this point is why I (and plenty of others I know) share this support for Uber. Right now if you’re like many people out there you’ll immediately be thinking the sole reason is price. If you did, you’re wrong. Yes UberX may undercut existing taxi offerings, but Uber Black also exists offering a premium transport solution in luxury vehicles. Why do I really like Uber? The answer is really quite simple – Uber are using technology to let me interact with them, and that’s something that existing taxi companies seem to be largely ignoring.

I love being able to open up the Uber app on my phone, see where the nearest vehicle is, see an estimated quote for a journey, order my ride, see the details of the driver and his vehicle, and then watch in real time as the driver comes to pick me up. The Uber driver sees all this data on a mobile phone and gets GPS based navigation to the destination. Once my journey is over I can literally hop out of the vehicle with payment for the ride being automatically deducted from my credit card with no expensive “electronic card convenience fee” surcharges which most taxi companies in NZ charge. I’m then prompted to rate my driver, and likewise the driver is prompted to rate me as a passenger. Uber really is the perfect product for today’s market and delivers a customer experience that other companies simply can’t offer.

So how are taxi companies in NZ competing against Uber? Improving their service? No. Creating apps to order a taxi? Typically no. Waiving “electronic card convenience fees”? No. The New Zealand Taxi Federation who represents most taxi drivers and taxi companies in NZ are simply spreading FUD (fear, uncertainly and doubt) in the hope of discrediting Uber, with stories such as this on stuff.co.nz on the weekend. I’ve also heard from a couple of taxi drivers in recent months that “Uber is illegal in NZ”, with the Taxi Federation claiming that many drivers are not legally licensed. It’s a requirement to hold a passenger service endorsement to carry passengers for payment here, so my challenge to the Taxi Federation is to front up with some facts to back their claims or to retract them. If drivers are operating illegally it’s the job of the New Zealand Transport Agency to enforce the law, so they should be approaching them with evidence, not bleating to the media and trying to spread mistruths.

So why aren’t taxi companies in New Zealand simply working on the whole customer experience issue and giving customers the ability to book a taxi online or via an app? That really is the million dollar question. Most large taxi companies in NZ all use a taxi dispatch system created by Australian company MTData, who are now one of the largest suppliers of taxi dispatch hardware in the world. In car terminals integrate tightly with their back end system meaning that a taxi company knows exactly where every car is and can dispatch jobs direct to the drivers screen. MTData provide an extensive API meaning that building an app to deliver 100% of the Uber functionality can easily be built. Hutt & City Taxis and Auckland Combined Taxis have launched iOS only apps within the past couple of years based on MTData source code that offer basic booking functionality, but the fact most people have never heard of these really sums up how popular they are. The lack of Android versions of their software also shows it’s not a market they’re serious about, and they also lack any ability to pay for your ride using the app.

The NZ market has seen the introduction of Zoomy, a 3rd party app that tries to replicate the Uber experience by equipping regular taxi drivers with mobile phones running the Zoomy app. An individual can book a taxi using the Zoomy app and pay for this with their credit card. Zoomy however is in my view a dead loss and I don’t see much of a future for it as it relies on convincing regular taxi drivers to sign up for the service, and with so few of them interested in this you’ll typically find that there may not be a Zoomy driver available if you want to order a taxi. Zoomy is also disliked by many large taxi companies and with little hope of getting these on side, it’s probably facing a pretty bleak future.

All of this really poses the question of why organisations such as Blue Bubble Taxis, New Zealand's largest affiliated taxi group which brings together 16 different taxi companies from across NZ, aren’t interested in the app market. My understanding is every single one uses the MTData dispatch system. Why haven’t Blue Bubble built an app (especially when MTData themselves are willing to provide support) to easily allow passengers in any of those markets to order a taxi, pay for that taxi using the app, and more importantly stand out from the market by offering a solution that their competitors don’t offer? Instead of wanting to compete with new entrants, these taxi companies seem stuck in the 1980s mindset believing that there is no need for innovation or change, which in this day in age is a perfect recipe for failure in any industry as new players are certainly more than happy to trample all over your existing business and steal your customers.



Jetstar’s on time performance stats stretching the truth once again

By Steve Biddle, in , posted: 23-Sep-2014 10:00

I wrote a few weeks ago about Jetstar’s on time performance in New Zealand. Today they’ve taken out banner ads on many major NZ websites promoting they are “New Zealand’s most punctual airline”, and promising a $25 voucher if your flight is more than 10 mins late between the 23rd and 30th September.

The problem with Jetstar’s claims is that they facts don’t quite back up their bold claim of being “New Zealand’s most punctual domestic airline”.

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Jetstar back up this claim with some fine print. They also admit that they are not comparing identical statistics as they’re reporting Air NZs entire domestic operations for half of the financial year, and only jet operations for the other half of the year.

*Best domestic airline on-time performance for July 2013-June 2014, at 10-minute departures. Source: ACARS for Jetstar statistics. Monthly reports to NZSX for Air New Zealand statistics. Air New Zealand reports included all aircraft types for July-December 2013 and jet aircraft only for January-June 2014.

It’s certainly worth noting that they’re talking about arrival times with their promise, but only publish scheduled departure statistics (and on NZ flights their scheduled flight times are 5 mins longer than Air NZ to allow a buffer for any delays).

Lets look at the published departure statistics for both airlines:

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Looking at the statistics published on the Jetstar website for the July 2013 – June 2014 financial year, Jetstar have an average on time departure performance of within 10 minutes of 86.59%

Lets have a look at the results of Air New Zealand. A quick look at their publically listed statistics from the nzx website includes the following comment.

In the 2014 financial year, 86.5% of Air New Zealand’s Domestic Jet flights departed within 10 minutes of scheduled departure time.

Air NZ operate a much larger fleet and operate significantly more domestic flights across their NZ operations than Jetstar. Air NZ also had a terrible start to the year with major on time issues due to the introduction of their A320 aircraft which they have now recovered from. Despite this Air NZ have an 86.5% on time departure performance percentage across the Domestic Jet Fleet vs Jetstar on 86.59%. Looking at the bigger picture it poses the question – factoring all of this in, is .09% the big difference Jetstar would have you think it is?



Hotel Review – Crowne Plaza Coogee Beach

By Steve Biddle, in , posted: 16-Sep-2014 07:50

As a semi frequent visitor to Sydney I typically tend to stay in the CBD. As I was recently there for a long weekend I decided to spend one of the nights in Coogee, a beachfront suburb in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs.

Coogee Beach is one of Sydney’s busiest beaches. It’s not (quite) as crowded as Bondi Beach, and doesn’t get quite as many tourists. Bus connections from the CBD are very frequent, with a travel time of around 30 minutes depending on traffic. It’s also one end of the spectacular Bondi to Coogee coastal walkway, which is certainly a must do if you’re in the area.

I checked in late on a Saturday afternoon and was promptly upgraded to a suite as I have Platinum Elite status with IHGs loyalty program, IHG Rewards. This hotel doesn’t feature club floors or club lounge unlike many other Crowne Plaza hotels and business services are limited to a small business centre with several PCs.

The hotel features  an outdoor pool, gym and conference rooms. It has a bar and restaurant in the hotel itself, and another bar/cafe/restaurant on the level below that has a street frontage.

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The suite on the 6th floor was a good size, however the layout did seem a little peculiar at first due to the desk being located behind the bed and the TV being located off centre from the bed.

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The room featured a well stocked mini bar which was reasonably priced.

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The room also featured a good size walk in wardrobe and bathroom with bathrobes and a safe.

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The room featured a balcony with a sensational view over Coogee Beach.

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As an IHG Platinum Elite customer I was entitled to free WiFi.  At login an option to upgrade to a “premium” faster service  was offered, however this did cost extra so it’s not something I tested. The basic free service offered speeds of around 1Mbps down and around 500kbps up in the single test I performed. If you don’t have any status with IHG you’ll find internet costs $19.95 per day, or $29.95 per day for the premium offering. Free access is available in the lobby for all guests.

The in room TV offering was great with all channels being in digital and the correct aspect ratio. Nothing annoys me more than a TV still distributing analogue video over RF with poor picture quality, and even worse, in the wrong aspect ratio. There are simply no excuses these days for either these days, but many hotels still can’t grasp this. The channel offering was a great selection of free to air and pay TV channels along with on-demand movies. The TV also offered the ability to record content and play it back from the EPG, something I haven’t seen offered before on a hospitality TV.

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My stay was a pleasant one and all staff were friendly. The only thing not perfect in my room was a badly stained chair foot rest that had clearly seen better days.

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While in Sydney a friend mentioned that this hotel is used extensively by a nearby hospital as a kind of  “maternity recuperation wing” for newborn babies and mothers. A lot of screaming from a baby was heard on numerous occasions while walking down the corridor, and medical equipment was present in the corridor outside my room during the entire stay, which I’m not sure is the most appropriate place to leave it. I don’t want to feel like I’m in a hospital when I’m on holiday.

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Overall I was very happy with my stay, and it’s certainly somewhere I’d stay again if I was looking at stay in the Coogee area.



Flight Review NZ84

By Steve Biddle, in , posted: 8-Sep-2014 20:50

I’ve flown business class on Air New Zealand three times in the past year, however all these flights have been on 767-300 aircraft that feature an old style business class offering and lack lie-flat seats. A holiday to Canada and the US with three friends was the perfect opportunity to check out Air New Zealand’s long haul offering on their 777-200. The trip was made even more special with the whole four of us sitting in Business Premier.

Air New Zealand’s long haul offering is a very mixed bag at present. Flights are operated by 767-300, 777-200ER (77E), 777-300ER (77W) and 747-400 (744) aircraft, all of which offer very different offerings across economy, premium economy and business class. As I write this, their single remaining 747-400 is due to be retired from the fleet this week. Long haul services of their new 787-900 are due to begin within the next month.

The 767-300 lacks lie-flat seating, instead opting for a short haul business class offering (you can read my flight review here), and also lacks a premium economy offering. The 777-200, 777-300ER, 747-400 and 787-900 all feature three classes of service. All feature Virgin Atlantic’s business class seat in a herringbone layout, ensuring that every passenger has direct aisle access which is one of the great features of Air New Zealand’s offering.

Boarding for out flight was on time and I was greeted by a nice smile and welcome while boarding. Air New Zealand typically only use a single door for boarding all passengers, with separate queues at the counter for economy and premium customers.

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I had seat 3K for my  flight. Despite being a window seat, looking out the window is slightly difficult due to the angle of the seat – something that’s not a fault as such, but if you’re somebody who likes gazing out the window you may end up slightly disappointed.

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The 77E still features an old Rockwell Collins in-flight entertainment (IFE) system. This is a 4:3 aspect ratio, non touch screen system. While content is virtually identical across all long haul aircraft, this is an old system that’s very clunky to use compared to the newer Panasonic touch screen systems features on the 767-300, 777-300 and 787-900 aircraft. The newer Panasonic systems also offer additional features such as ordering drinks and snacks from the IFE.

As I write this the 777-200 fleet is currently in the process of being refitted with entirely new seats across all cabins, and a new Panasonic IFE system. The first aircraft is complete, and a second is underway at present. The upgrade of the entire fleet of 777-200 aircraft is due for completion by late 2015. The business class seats will match these that feature in the 777-300 and 787-900 aircraft, which is simply an upgraded model of this same seat.

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Upon sitting down I was welcomed by the cabin crew and inflight service manager and offered a glass of Champagne or orange juice. Air New Zealand serve Mumm Champagne, and as I’m a fan I felt it would be rude to turn this down. The seats feature an ottoman which also features a seatbelt so it can be used as a seat if a travel partner wants to join at meal times.

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The seat features space for phones, headphones, reading material etc in storage areas underneath the screen, and also inside a pop up storage bin.

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On every seat there is a menu, and amenity kit featuring Clarins lip balm & moisturiser, socks, toothbrush and toothpaste, earplugs, eye mask and a pen. Noise cancelling headphones are also provided, which are a lot better than most airline headphones, are certainly no match for my Bose QC15s.

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Just before takeoff orders were taken for a drinks service which was delivered as we reached cruise altitude. This was accompanied by pretzels and dip. Another glass of Mumm? It’d be rude to say no.

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Not long after this the appetiser was served, along with a choice of breads.

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This was followed by the main. I opted for the roast chicken breast which was simply  delicious.

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Deciding what to have for desert was a tough decision. I opted for the cheesecake which was delicious, however I’m assured the tart was fantastic as well.IMG_20140806_220323

After a few more glasses of  red wine followed by  a Glemorange 10yr as a nightcap, it was time to sleep. The crew had my seat converted to a bed in record time.  A memory  foam mattress sits on top of the seat, complete with 2 full size pillows.

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I managed to get a good 5 hours sleep on out 13 hour flight and awoke to a choice of juice or a fruit smoothie.

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Which was followed by fresh fruit, a choice of cereals and muesli, and yoghurt. This was accompanied by  a selection of bakery  items including croissants or toast.

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And followed down by a delicious brioche. I’d had this before and loved it, but it was a tough choice between that and the corn fritters which looked great!

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It wasn’t long after breakfast that we made landfall, tracking into Vancouver over Victoria Island which delivered some great views out the window.

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And ZK-OKD parked up at Vancouver Airport.

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Overall the flight was awesome – the crew were amazing and the food and drinks were great. The level of service was significantly better than that which I’d experience in several recent Air New Zealand business class trips on the 767, which does feature different crew. They  were certainly a lot friendlier, and more attentive. This does however lead to the fundamental problem Air New Zealand has at present, and that’s differing levels of service, and different products across the fleet. This is something that won’t be solved for another couple of years until the 777-200 refit is complete, and the 767’s removed from service as they’re gradually replaced by the 787-900.

Permalink to Flight Review NZ84 | Add a comment (4 comments) | Main Index


Hotel Review – Hilton Burlingame San Francisco Airport Bayfront

By Steve Biddle, in , posted: 29-Aug-2014 08:52

I’ve stayed at a few different hotels near San Francisco airport in recent years, but I’d never stayed at the Hilton. As I have Gold Status with hhonors, Hilton’s loyalty program, I thought I’d check it out.

The hotel is located only a few miles from San Francisco airport and has plenty of parking both at the hotel, and at an airport long term parking lot which is located next door. As I was flying in and out of San Francisco International Airport, I took advantage of their free hotel shuttle which runs from the airport. The market for accommodation near the airport is a very competitive one, with free shuttles the norm for all hotels. These shuttles are all run by private transportation companies rather than the hotels themselves, and as most of the big hotel chains feature several of their hotel brands near the airport, the shuttle will typically serve a number of hotels. Shuttle pickup areas are outside each of the four terminals at SFO. I waited for around 15 minutes for the shuttle to arrive, a timeframe that’s fairly typical of other recent experiences.

Upon arrival at the hotel I was greeted at the front desk by a super friendly staff member and check-in was a very quick process. Due to my hhonors Gold status I was upgraded to a room on the Executive Floors, and a request to change to a room with an airport runway view was quickly processed after discussing with another staff member what free rooms would have the best view. The hotel was very busy with a number of people checking in, and a function that was also on at the same time.

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The room was a nice size, with a King size bed, great desk space, good size TV with all channels being digital. Nothing annoys me more in a hotel that a TV system with analogue content, often with video that’s not even in the correct aspect ratio. WiFi coverage and performance was good, and as a hhonors Gold member I receive free internet at all Hilton hotels. Hilton take pride in their bathroom products, and it’s safe to say I do have a nice collection now! :-) The room also featured a window that could be opened.

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And the view out my room window of the the threshold of runway 28L and 28R at SFO.

Executive floor rooms at any Hilton location include access to the Hilton Executive Lounge. This lounge offers a good place to work with access to PCs, newspapers, and food and drinks throughout the day. Breakfast is served in the morning and canapés and drinks (with a cash bar) in the evening. At other times of the day soft drinks, water, and light snacks and cookies are available.

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I stopped by briefly to snack on the canapés before heading out to enjoy the beautiful evening. The selection was fairly typical of a US platter, with a great vege selection, fruit, cheeses and bread. If you were simply after a light dinner, it could easily fill the spot.

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The hotel features a well equipped gymnasium and indoor poor, and a bar area and restaurant on the ground floor. The bar was quite busy when I stopped by with a number of airline crews (there seemed to be a lot staying at this hotel) eating at the restaurant.

The executive floor rooms feature a turndown service which is still something I really love in a hotel. Coming back to find nice chocolates by my bed at night is always going to win a chocoholic such as myself over!

The bed was a very comfortable Hilton bed, with great sheeting and pillows. The hotel doesn’t appear to offer a pillow menu, but with the number on offer on the bed there was no need. Noise from the airport wasn’t an issue, but traffic noise from the nearby freeway could be faintly heard, but was certainly nowhere near loud enough to cause any issues. My only real complaint about the room was the air conditioning and ventilation system. A loud extractor fan in the bathroom that couldn’t be switched off meant I had to sleep with the bathroom door shut. Likewise the air conditioning system in the room itself was so noisy that sleeping with it on would be virtually impossible. Luckily the room wasn’t hot, so there was no need for this to be on.

I woke up feeling refreshed and after a great shower with good water pressure I headed to the Executive Lounge to check out the breakfast options. While it’s no substitute for a full buffet breakfast, the food selection on offer was great with cereal, yoghurt, fruit, break, pastries, eggs and sausages on offer. It was enough to leave me feeling very content.

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I checked out of the hotel after breakfast and left my bags there for the day to head into San Francisco for the day before my evening flight back to New Zealand. Access to public transport from the hotel is a little tricky due to it’s location. The easiest access to the BART subway system is from the airport (which you can get to via the free shuttle), or from Milbrae station which is a short taxi ride away. Closest access to the Caltrain is from Burlingame station which can be accessed by a free shuttle bus that runs between several nearby hotels and downtown Burlingame throughout the day, or once again via taxi or rideshare service such as Uber (which is cheaper than a taxi).

Overall staying at the hotel was a great experience, and the front desk and bell staff were all very pleasant to deal with. I’ve grown fond of Hilton in recent years, and this experience has certainly added to my positive experiences with the brand.



Do Jetstar employ PR people who don’t understand graphs?

By Steve Biddle, in , posted: 27-Aug-2014 10:36

The people over at Jetstar posted a graph on their Twitter account his morning. Clearly the intention was to show that they’re better than Air New Zealand when it comes to on-time performance. I’m not quite sure if it really does show that.

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It’s no secret that Air New Zealand have had terrible on-time performance across their main trunk routes in recent times. These problems have existed for a number of reasons, not but least

A) The move from 737 to A320 aircraft with 38 more seats. Meeting 30 minute turnaround times for some domestic flights has been a challenge. But Jetstar operate A320 aircraft as well you may say – but the key being Air NZ average passenger loadings on their flights are significantly higher than Jetstar. While not the sole cause, in conjunction with the following it’s lead to major problems in recent months.

B) Jetstar operate strict timeframes for gate closure – be on the plane 15 minutes before your flight or you’ll miss it. Air New Zealand aren’t quite so strict, something that customers may like, but ultimately it can cause delays.

C) Koru Lounges. Jetstar don’t have airport lounges in New Zealand. This means passengers are waiting at the gate rather than in the lounge. With many travellers preferring to wait in the lounge until the last minute, it ultimately has the ability to cause delays.

D) Delays at Wellington airport due to screening. Due to no centralised screening for jet services at Wellington airport many passengers waiting in the lounge until the last minute and all scramble to be screened, which can cause delays.

E) Air New Zealand operate significantly more services than Jetstar.

So the graph shows what everybody already knows. Air NZ lead the way in on-time performance but slipped. A lot of work in recent months is clearly shown in these results, and it shows that on-time performance from Air New Zealand is back to where it was. I’m no PR person, but releasing information showing the massive improvements your competitor is making seems a little strange. It’s great of Jetstar to point that out to the industry.



Flight Review NZ7

By Steve Biddle, in , posted: 27-Aug-2014 08:52

Anybody out there who loves planes knows that the 747 has truly earned the title of Queen of the skies. The plane that revolutionised long haul travel has been a mainstay of global airline fleets for over three decades, but with increasing fuel costs it’s becoming increasingly less common at airports around the world as it’s being replaced by  newer, more fuel efficient aircraft.

Over the past few years Air New Zealand have retired most of their 747-400 fleet, and has a single 747-400 still flying. This aircraft is scheduled to fly it’s last flight as NZ7 from San Francisco to Auckland on September 10th. With this in mind I purposely booked my flight home from San Francisco so I could have possibly my last flight in what I still regard as the coolest plane in the skies.

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I arrived at the airport a little earlier than usual, and was greeted by ZK-NBV as I departed the BART station at the airport. Check-in at San Francisco (SFO) was a  very smooth process with only a single person in front of my in the premium queue. TSA queues at US airports are often a nightmare, but I was through this in around 10 minutes and a few minutes later arrived at the Singapore Airlines lounge which is used by Air New Zealand in the absence of their own Koru lounge.

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Food and beverage selections were typical for an airline lounge at a US airport – which is quite different to what people would normally expect from a regular Koru lounge. A selection of salads, cheese, vege platter, potato crisps, a pretzel mix and cookies made up the selection, with some filled rolls on the side. The liquor selection was also fairly average, but at least featured Tiger beer which is a little more exciting than drinking Bud Lite. Bathrooms are at each end of the lounge and two of these feature showers, with the only downside being that these are both shared with bathrooms so take these out of action while in use. The lounge became quite busy, but still had seating available. The lounge itself closes at 2045, 30 minutes before the scheduled departure time of NZ7 of 2115. It’s only a short walk from the lounge to the gate normally used by Air New Zealand.

Boarding commenced a few minutes late, but as I had left the lounge earlier I was near the front of the queue to board.

As this would possibly be my last 747 flight I decided I had to make a final flight on the upper deck, so flew Premium Economy in seat 22A (which coincidently is the same same seat I flew on last year in my NZ8 review). Row 22 is an exit row featuring unlimited legroom, but does torment anybody sitting here with a great view of the lie flat Business Premier seats!

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There are many similarities between Premium Economy and Business Premier on Air New Zealand. Both receive noise cancelling headphones (which are significantly better than regular headphones, but pale in comparison to my Bose QC15s), an amenity kit, and similar food and wine menus. The most significant difference being that Premium Economy meals are served in regular airline food trays, whereas Business Premier meals are fully plated up.

After we’d reached cruise altitude menus and hot towels were distributed around the cabin.

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To begin – a salad of crab and smoked salmon, washed down with a glass of Mumm Champagne.

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Followed by seared miso glazed cod (and another glass of Mumm!). Desert was a strawberry and ginger mousse. All three courses were delicious. Flying in premium cabins means premium alcohol offerings, and the crew seemed very happy keeping peoples glasses full.

After dinner I decided to check out the in flight entertainment system, and that’s when things started to go astray. Due to the age of this aircraft it still has a rather ancient non touch screen Rockwell Collins system which only features a 4:3 aspect ratio rather than 16:9 widescreen. On this particular plane it was certainly showing it’s age. I’d heard from other friends who had flown on this aircraft in recent weeks that the system was experiencing problems, and it’s safe to say that was an understatement. A full system reboot didn’t fix the problems which include skipping and loss of video and audio sync, and the system was pretty much unusable as a result. Lucky I had content on my laptop to watch instead.

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The IFE if it had been working – a good selection of movies, music, radio channels and games. The same Rockwell Collins system is present on Air New Zealand’s fleet of 777-200 aircraft, but these are currently in the process of being refitted with new seats and a new Panasonic eXlite IFE system.

After a good sleep I woke up not long before the breakfast service commenced. Being a little peckish I checked out the snack bar which is available throughout the flight for Premium Economy and Business Premier customers. This featured grapes, apples, vege crisps, Whittakers chocolate bars, muesli bars, Cookie Time chocolate chip cookies and bottled water.

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Breakfast was a bit of a mixed bag. The fruit was nice, but the croissant was a little squashed and not flaky. The quesadilla tasted great, but to be honest was a little too greasy for a meal at 0400 in the morning.

Our arrival into Auckland was smooth and there were no delays with priority bags which were starting to appear just as I arrived at the baggage carousel. Within a few minutes I’d checked my bags at the domestic transfer desk and was on my way to the domestic terminal to wait for my flight to Wellington.

Overall the flight was a good one, however it’s very clear that this is one plane that’s well and truly served it’s time and is due for replacement. The same crews that crew the 747 also crew the other long haul 777-300 and 777-200 aircraft so the level of service is the same, however the fit out of a newer 777-300 aircraft is superior in every way, and the Panasonic IFE system on the newer 777-300 aircraft is so superior it’s like comparing night and day.

 

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RIP ZK-NBV

October 1998 – September 2014

Permalink to Flight Review NZ7 | Add a comment (2 comments) | Main Index


Air New Zealand announces gate to gate use of electronic devices

By Steve Biddle, in , posted: 4-Jul-2014 11:42

I've never simply posted a press release on my blog before - but this is very exciting news. From the 16th July customer on selected Air New Zealand services will be able to use electronic devices that are switched to flight mode from gate to gate - there will be no requirement to power off these devices during takeoff and landing as is required at present.

All we need now is Air NZ inflight WiFi - which is something that has been rumored for some time with the launch last year of coverage in the South Pacific and the installation of a ground uplink station in Adelaide by Panasonic Aviation who provide Air NZ's Inflight Entertainment (IFE) system on their new aircraft.


Air New Zealand customers will be some of the first in the Asia Pacific region to be able to use their handheld portable electronic devices in non-transmitting mode for the entire duration of their flights following approval from the New Zealand Civil Aviation Authority. From 16 July the airline will allow the use of handheld portable electronic devices including tablets, smartphones, e-readers and mp3 players during all phases of flight provided the devices are in flight mode.  Previously customers could not use their devices during the taxi, take-off and landing phases of flight.

Initially this option will be available to customers travelling on domestic and international services operated by Airbus A320 and Boeing 787-9, 777-200 and 777-300 aircraft with plans to include Air New Zealand’s regional turbo prop and Boeing 767-300 fleets over time, subject to regulatory approval.

Air New Zealand’s General Manager Customer Experience Carrie Hurihanganui says extending the use of electronic devices to all phases of flight will further enhance the customer journey.
“We are living in a digital age where the majority of our customers use electronic devices while travelling.  Today’s announcement will give customers further freedom to use their handheld devices to take photos, listen to music or watch pre-loaded movies gate to gate.

“Air New Zealand prides itself on being a leader in innovation and technology and continues to actively explore what can be done to make the travel experience easier and more enjoyable for our customers.”
Last year the US Federal Aviation Administration published guidance allowing for the expanded use of portable electronic devices following analysis by experts from airlines, aircraft manufacturers, pilots associations, cabin crew and mobile technology manufacturers.



sbiddle's profile

Steve Biddle
Wellington
New Zealand


I'm an engineer who loves building solutions to solve problems.

My interests and skillset include:

*VoIP (Voice over IP). I work with various brands of hardware and PBX's on a daily basis
  -Asterisk (incl trixbox, PiaF, FreePBX, Elastix and AsteriskNOW)
  -Polycom
  -Cisco
  -Linksys
  -Patton
  -Zyxel
  -Snom
  -Sangoma
  -Audiocodes

*Telecommunications/Broadband
  -xDSL deployments
  -WiMAX
  -GSM/WCDMA

*Structured cabling
  -Home/office cabling
  -Phone & Data

*Computer networking
  -Mikrotik hardware
  -WAN/LAN solutions

*Wireless solutions
  -Motel/Hotel hotspot deployments
  -Outdoor wireless deployments, both small and large scale
  -Temporary wireless deployments
   
*CCTV solutions
  -Analogue and IP

I'm an #avgeek who loves to travel the world (preferably in seat 1A) and stay in nice hotels.


+My views do no represent my employer. I'm sure they'll be happy to give their own if you ask them.


You can contact me here or by email at [email protected]

twitter.com/stevebiddle










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