The Best Premium Seats to Australia and New Zealand

Mar 22, 2016

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Looking to book a trip on one of the many new transpacific flights between the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand? TPG Special Correspondent John Walton says kia ora and g’day to youse all with some tried-and-tested recommendations for the best seats in first and business class on Qantas, Virgin Australia, American, United, Delta, Air Canada and Hawaiian Airlines to help you make the all important ultra-long haul decision.

With flights from a half-dozen gateways in North America to slightly fewer airports in Australia and New Zealand, here are the airlines — and planes — to choose, and the ones to avoid.


Your two options in international first class are Qantas and American Airlines. This one’s a no-brainer: If you can find Qantas availability, that’s the one you want, for every part of the passenger experience.


Virgin Australia (New Seats: The Business)

Debuting later this year, Virgin Australia will take the business class cake once its delayed seats arrive. If you can get on Virgin’s new Super Diamond outward-facing herringbone business class seats, which the airline calls The Business, it’s the best option for the long transpacific haul.

After quite a bit of a certification delay (seatmaker B/E Aerospace couldn’t get the regulators to approve the new, more angled version without time-consuming modifications) these outward-facing herringbone seats offer direct aisle access for every passenger and are due to arrive in “early 2016.”

It’s easiest use a tool like ExpertFlyer to find where and when the airline is scheduling its new seats, and it will be fairly obvious given that the seats are in a 1-2-1 configuration — the older ones are still in an uncompetitive 2-3-2 configuration.

Seen at the Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg in 2015, these new Virgin Australia seats will (eventually) be the best transpacific product. Photo - John Walton.
Seen at the Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg in 2015, these new Virgin Australia seats will (eventually) be the best transpacific product. Photo by John Walton.

Virgin Australia (Old Seats)

The old seats on Virgin Australia aren’t great. They’re notionally fully flat, but pretty tired and the foot end of the seat gets a bit droopy at times. They’re also in a 2-3-2 configuration, so the Midnight Clamber is in effect — where the window passenger must vault like a nimble gazelle or a lumbering hippo over the sleeping aisle passenger next to them — but you can’t avoid it by choosing the center column of seats.

My tip: pick the ultra-private Row 5 (separated by curtains) for the celeb-tastic experience, but note that those seats are right by the bar, which can be noisy.

Virgin Australia
Virgin Australia’s old 777 business class isn’t great. Image courtesy of Virgin Australia.

Air Canada (787 or 777-200LR)

The newest Air Canada seats on the airline’s 787 and 777-200LR aircraft are the same basic model as Virgin Australia’s B/E Super Diamond outward-facing herringbones. The extra wow factor of the Virgin service isn’t there, but it’s a solid choice when connecting via Vancouver.

Air Canada (777-300ER) / Delta

It’s a tie between the Air Canada and Delta inward-facing herringbones — unsurprising since they’re essentially the same seat. Most everyone prefers outward-facing herringbones, but you can’t deny these are fully flat beds with direct aisle access for everyone.

Air New Zealand (Boeing 777)

With upgraded versions of the original fully flat inward-facing herringbone with direct aisle access, plus the great Kiwi service it’s known for, Air New Zealand edges out Air Canada and Delta. But watch out on the 787 — this smaller plane means seats that are pitched closer together. It’s the same basic seat, but elbow room and sleeping width are noticeably smaller.

Air New Zealand (787-9)

It’s a similar inward-facing herringbone product as the Kiwis’ 777 (see above), but narrower, so it’s a bit behind Delta and Air Canada’s 777 product.

Air New Zealand is a solid choice for trans-pacific flights. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
Air New Zealand is a solid choice for trans-pacific flights. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

American Airlines (777-300ER)

Using the Cathay Pacific-customized Zodiac Cirrus reverse herringbone seats with direct aisle access for every passenger, AA’s newest 777s are pretty great. They also all have Ku-band Satellite Panasonic Wi-Fi, which puts them ahead of Air Canada, but overall the AA service concept doesn’t beat chic, fun and stylish Virgin Australia unless you really must have Wi-Fi.

American Airlines (787)

The forward-backward seats on American’s 787 fleet aren’t to everyone’s taste, and there’s not a lot of space for storage, but all seats offer fully lie-flat beds with direct aisle access and it’s pretty much your only nonstop option to Auckland that isn’t Air New Zealand. There’s also Ku-band Satellite Panasonic Wi-Fi.

Qantas (A380)

Perhaps surprisingly, Qantas‘ best product isn’t on its A380s. This is a comfy, wide fully lie-flat bed on the delightfully quiet A380 upper deck, and the food and wine options are well above par. But it lacks the direct aisle access standard and requires the aforementioned Midnight Clamber. My tip: Pick a seat in the center section, where the 2-2-2 layout means nobody climbing over you. There’s not all that much to see over the Pacific anyway.

Qantas (747)

The Flying Kangaroo’s refurbished 747 aircraft have the same seat as the A380, but it’s not as quiet and there are middle seats downstairs. There are a few great seats — mainly exit rows, the nose seats and the upper deck — but it’s not quite up to the A380.

Qantas’ business class food and wine is above average, and the A380 is wonderfully quiet, but the seats do require the Midnight Clamber. Image courtesy of Qantas.

United (787-9)

The new Dreamliners United flies have the airline’s standard B/E Diamond fully lie-flat bed without direct aisle access in a 2-2-2 configuration. It’s not great, but it is flat — again, grab a center section seat to avoid the Midnight Clamber — and there’s Ku-band Satellite Panasonic Wi-Fi.

United’s newest business class seats are better than the old ones, but towards the bottom of the pack. Image courtesy of United Airlines.

United (777-200ER)

It’s hard to say anything nice about the pre-merger United business class seats. These are the narrowest, most constrained flat beds in the sky —and in a 2-4-2 layout which gives the highest likelihood of getting stuck in a middle seat. These seats need replacing, but with enough Château Muñoz they’re better than economy.

The old United seats are tired and uncompetitive, with a 2-4-2 layout. Image courtesy of United Airlines.
The old United seats are tired and uncompetitive, with a 2-4-2 layout. Image courtesy of United Airlines.

Hawaiian Airlines

Until their attractive new fully lie-flat beds — which the airline says will have direct aisle access, but it looks to be a tight squeeze — arrive in mid-2016, Hawaiian’s first class is still a recliner that really fights with the premium economy offerings on Qantas, Virgin Australia (and soon, American Airlines). Fly via Honolulu and stay a day or two to break your journey and you won’t mind too much.

…but the old seats are as dated as this guy
Hawaiian Airlines’ business class is nice … but the seats are as dated as this guy’s hair. Image courtesy of Hawaiian Airlines.

Using Points and Miles

You can redeem points and miles on flights from North America to Australia and New Zealand through the following US programs:

Award tickets on United Airlines start at 80,000 United MileagePlus miles round-trip in economy, 140k in business class, or 160k in first class. Round-trip awards from Star Alliance partners Air Canada and Air New Zealand start at 80k United MileagePlus miles in economy, 160k in business class, or 260k in first class.

Round-trip redemptions on American Airlines (as well as OneWorld Alliance partner Qantas and Hawaiian Airlines) start at 75k in economy and 125k in business class and 145k in first class when booked before the AA devaluation on March 22. Awards booked on or after March 22 will start at 80k for economy seats and 160k for business class and 220k for first class.

While Delta doesn’t publish an award chart, based on a recent search the lowest redemptions available start at 90k in economy and 255k in business class (round-trip from the US).

You can also book round-trip flights to Australia and New Zealand on Hawaiian Airlines using HawaiianMiles by transferring 1:1 from American Express Membership Rewards — round-trip redemptions start at 120k HawaiianMiles for economy seats (80k round-trip from Hawaii) and 210k HawaiianMiles for business class seats (130k if you’re flying round-trip from Hawaii).

Bottom Line

First class, business class, premium economy, extra legroom economy and regular old economy are all offered by the airlines now flying from the US and Canada to Australia and New Zealand, and there are some real differences — from the very latest fully lie-flat beds with direct aisle access to seats that are more premium economy than business class. Choose wisely for your next ultra-longhaul Down Under.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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