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A Cuddle with Aircalin


A Cuddle with Aircalin

This airline’s spirit of hospitality is reflected in its name.

BY JOHN CORBETT


Call us old-fashioned but we like airlines that get their priorities right. The first one, first and foremost and always, is safety, so let’s get that out of the way. The second, about which Alimentary remains hopeful most times it boards a plane, is for a feeling of hospitality. That obviously doesn’t apply to grim budget airlines where the mantra is: ‘You want this? Pay that. You want that? Pay some more’, but we avoid them as much as we can. And anyway, we are talking about a whole different kettle of bouillabaisse here because our happy subject is Aircalin.

Not as many people know about Aircalin as they should. Société Aircalin, also known as Air Calédonie International, is the international airline of New Caledonia and, in Alimentary’s view, is one of the best full-service operators in the Australasian region.

Its eleven destinations, centred on Nouméa, extend as far as Tokyo, Osaka and Seoul, where they connect, si vous voulez (should you wish) to services by Air France-KLM. Aircalin also flies to Fiji and Vanuatu, to the French overseas collectivity of the Wallis & Futuna Islands, and has a weekly return service from Nouméa to Papeete. Its fleet of Airbus A320 and A330 aircraft also provides frequent services to Brisbane, Sydney and Auckland.

But it’s the onboard service that’s the thing and it’s here that Aircalin excels. We have flown with them several times now, both in Classe Hibiscus in the pointy end and in Classe Economique further back and every flight has been pleasant. The atmosphere in Hibiscus Class, especially on the A330 aircraft where there are 24 seats (the A320s have eight) is hushed and spacious.

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The A330 on the Auckland-Nouméa run was retrofitted late last year with lie-flat shell seats in a 2:2:2 configuration so they are excellent, si vous voulez, for an in-flight nap after lunch. No sooner are you seated than you also realise this airline has its priorities right: along with a welcoming glass of Champagne, you are handed a carte des vins (wine list).

Alimentary is a particular fan of the Hibiscus Class hot meal service on the two-hour and 40-minute Auckland-Nouméa flight. Recently it was a Cajun lamb fillet and quinoa salad with green peas and roast squash, followed by a choice of roast chicken in rosemary and basil butter sauce with mashed sweet potato and spinach; or grilled salmon fillet with basil cream and roast tomato, asparagus, mashed potato and chives.

With an accompanying seasonal salad, an assortment of cheeses and a dessert (recently a cinnamon and pear savarin) plus coffee and a digestif or liqueur, it is certainly the region’s most substantial and delicious meal in the sky. This is, after all, a French airline.

We have also been happy in Classe Economique. The first time we flew with Aircalin five years ago from Sydney to Nouméa, was like a flashback to the good old days when flying was a treat. For a start, the seating wasn’t cramped. The cabin attendants were smiling and efficient and didn’t give you tweezer lips when you asked for another glass of vin rouge, s’il vous plaît. We are happy to report they are smiling still. The meals in Aircalin’s Economy Class are also better and more substantial than those of almost every other airline we can think of.

In an age where levels of service are being progressively scaled back and extra charges imposed for previously free small comforts like blankets, pillows and even food, it’s a tonic to travel with an airline that maintains a tradition of full service. We were casting about for a way to sum up Aircalin’s spirit of hospitality but realised we needed to look no further than its name. In French, the word ‘calin’ means cuddle or hug.
- www.alimentary.co.nz

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