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Review: Fiji Airways Business Class, Vancouver to Nadi, Airbus A350

Today we’re flying Fiji Airways, who are currently 10 years into a long-term rebranding and rebuilding project that's made them a solid player in Pacific aviation. It's a playbook we've seen before from airlines like Turkish and Qatar; build routes that attract connecting passengers and then convince as many of them as possible to spend a few days on a longer connection while en route.


With this goal in mind, they're working hard to win traffic between North America and Australia/New Zealand; for example, it’s common to find Vancouver-Sydney or Vancouver-Auckland return in Fiji Business for $6,000-7,000 CAD, while Qantas and Air Canada charge $12-15K for direct flights. In Economy, Fiji commonly offers $1,500 against $2,300-2,500 on Air Canada / Qantas / Air New Zealand.


The next step in this strategy is Fiji’s Stopover program, in which connecting passengers on routes like (Vancouver / San Francisco / LA) to (Auckland, Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane) are offered the option to add a free multi-day stop in Fiji. We didn’t end up booking through this specific program, but we did make a stop of several days while celebrating our wedding anniversary and it was absolutely brilliant.


Having read several reviews of Fiji’s long-haul business product, I was curious to see how their execution matched up against the major players!



Part One - Booking Fiji Airways is a Oneworld alliance member, and while many travellers might find 80,000 American Airlines miles to be a good fit for their points wallet, the real sweet spot here is Alaska miles; I booked our flights from Vancouver to Nadi with 55,000 Alaska miles, plus $50.51 USD in fees, per person.


We could have spent the same number of points plus another $75 or so, and added a leg from Fiji onward to Australia - including a multi-day stopover - but we didn’t have any flexibility in our dates and Fiji Airways didn’t release any award space on the date we needed, so I picked up our Nadi-Melbourne leg with cash on Virgin Australia.

We booked online easily, and when I later found new award space on dates that better fit our calendar, it was dead simple to set up a free change through Alaska's brilliant customer-service chat.


Part Two - At The Airport

Fiji's North American routes (Vancouver, San Francisco and Los Angeles) are all late-night departures, flying overnight across the International Date Line and arriving at sunrise two calendar days later, so we headed to Vancouver International Airport about two hours for our 9:45 departure.

Online check-in wasn't possible, as we needed to do passport checks etc. in person. It's worth noting that this also involved us showing proof of hotel reservations in Fiji, onward flights departing Fiji and even flights returning to Canada. I’ve never had to show that last bit before, so show up prepared!


Check-in was a bit chaotic, and we were definitely glad to be using the Business Class priority line, the general check-in line had to be half an hour long just to get to an agent, while we were all set and sorted in five or ten minutes.



Vancouver's International Departures wing consistently ranks among the best airport terminals in the world, and one of the many reasons why is its stunning collection of First Nations art and sculpture.




Part Three - The Lounge

Our business-class tickets gave us access to the Skyteam Lounge in YVR’s international terminal. We also would normally have qualified with the Priority Pass attached to my Amex Platinum card, but as our flight departed during an evening rush-hour period that also included departures from China Airlines and Aeromexico, access was restricted to business-class and Skyteam Elite Plus passengers only.


It’s a well-appointed space on the second floor, with an “open sky” design to the rest of the terminal interior, and lots of casual and semi-work-friendly seating.



I’m rarely one to eat much in a lounge before a long-haul business flight, unless it’s an unusually good property like the Signature Suite or Polaris Lounge. Say whatever you like about business-class airline food, there aren't a ton of airport lounges anywhere whose catering is substantially better.

That said, we had a small snack of siu mai that were good-but-not-great, and a glass of Prosecco that was about the same. If I’d been there on a long layover it would have been enough for a light meal.


Boarding

Fiji have done a good job of organizing the boarding process into 10 groups - our Airbus 350-900 was configured for 33 business and 301 economy passengers, which would have been more than enough to make ill-organized boarding absolutely chaotic. We boarded right on time in Group A, through a single jetway.




Part Four - On Board

I really love what Fiji have done with their cabin design. Okay, their A350s are fairly new, but the interiors are clean and crisp, with an understated black-and-white colour scheme based in Fijian indigenous art. 


The business cabin uses a 1-2-1 layout of the Collins Super Diamond pod that’s become a global favourite, chosen by Qatar, British Airways, AA, China Airlines and Air Canada to name just a few. Fiji’s pods are upholstered in cream leather with black highlights, with a large touchscreen for in-flight entertainment, and the usual side-table touchpad and remote control.


Two small complaints - first, Fiji have made the odd choice to dedicate the aisle-side storage under the adjustable armrest as storage for water bottles, where other airlines configure the same space as a great place to store shoes or slippers out of the way during sleep. 

Second, while the Super Diamond seat is available with a variety of adjustable comfort points, Fiji have omitted features like the ability to move the lumbar support higher or lower, and as a tall guy with a bad back, this was literally a pain in the… anyway.

Overall, the pods are as private as you can really get without a door that closes, and as I was travelling with my wife it was nice to be able to pick neighbouring D+G seats with a sliding partition that let us actually see and talk to each other.


Business Class For People Who Don’t Fly Business

At the start of this review, I mentioned that Fiji are offering some pretty aggressive pricing to lure premium-cabin passengers away from direct flights on Qantas, Air Canada and the US3. While it’s obviously not a scientific study,  one side effect we noticed on our flight was the remarkable percentage of our fellow passengers who seemed to be flying Business for the first time. I don’t view this as a bad thing, quite the opposite, and I only bring it up here as it really seemed like Fiji have noticed the same phenomenon, and have built a lot of “introduction to your lie-flat pod” educational material into their pre-flight routine, including a pamphlet at each seat describing the various features of the seat and in-flight entertainment system.




Part Five - In-Flight Service 

The cabin crew on our flight were attentive and friendly, but my wife and I had different flight attendants and noticed very different service levels from one FA to the next; hers was proactive in reaching out to refresh drinks, clear meal trays etc, while mine seemed worried to bother anyone, and stayed mainly in the galley unless requested.

We were offered menus and a glass of Cattier Brut Icône champagne or sparkling water shortly after boarding - along with the obligatory bottle of Fiji Water - and meal selection including breakfast was taken before we pushed back from the gate.


The dinner menu offered a mix of Western and Fijian flavours; my wife was particularly impressed with the mushroom soup, my salmon-and-scallop appetizer was beautifully presented and well-executed, and the prawn curry was honestly one of the better meals I’ve ever had on a flight. 

Dinner was served nearly two hours after wheels-up. As I had to stay up and get my last few hours of pre-vacation work done, this was less of an issue for me, but it would likely have been pretty annoying to anyone trying to get straight to sleep after our 11PM departure



For the overnight portion of the flight, the menu promised a selection of “ambient sweet and savoury snacks” available in the galley. I apologize, dear readers, I got wrapped up in work and failed to investigate this further.

When breakfast service began, just under 2 hours before arrival, the service was particularly uneven; the left side of the cabin had largely finished breakfast before the right side had been served, and the drinks options I had marked down when ordering after departure simply… never arrived.


I can't be certain those aren't Eggo waffles.



When I finally rang the flight attendant to ask for a drink after about 20 minutes, she happily arrived and cleared my breakfast away to the galley, while I was halfway through my meal. After a few minutes, she brought me my drink along with a dish of pastries, I suppose having figured out that I might not have been entirely done with breakfast.


Hardly a big deal, but as it didn’t match the other half of the cabin, it felt more to me like one inexperienced crew member rather than “how Fiji choose to do things”.


Part Six - In-flight Entertainment 

I never feel terribly qualified to review in-flight entertainment, as I simply don’t watch a ton of movies or TV on IFE, usually preferring the moving map and the music I’ve brought with me. That said, this flight was well-equipped with brand-new HD touchscreen displays and remote, and offered the usual wide selection of new-release and classic films from around the world, as well as a variety of TV shows ranging from sitcom to drama to documentary.


…I did, however, get to watch my favourite show during our take-off and landing!



The advertised wi-fi service was attractively-priced, and I would happily have paid the $19.95 for a full 11 hours of streaming-quality service, but the system was unavailable throughout our flight and the crew didn’t seem terribly concerned with trying to get it working. Not the end of the world, I finished my work and uploaded it once we landed.



The amenity kit was pretty standard; a lovely Fijian-patterned pouch included a pair of thin socks, eye mask, earplugs and dental kit, along with travel-sized bottles of lightly-scented hand lotion and hand sanitizer, as well as an airline-branded ballpoint pen to fill out customs paperwork.




Part Seven - Sleep Quality

The Super Diamond business-class seat is terrifically comfortable if you sleep on your back, while side sleepers like me can sometimes find that even when stored away, the table tray is still a bit restrictive. Fiji have also equipped their pods with a medium-firm foam mattress that I find infinitely more comfortable than the controllable air mattresses equipped on Air Canada’s 777/787 fleet, that are designed to offer passengers their choice of firmness, but more often end up randomly inflating and deflating throughout the flight.

I drifted off to sleep about four hours into our 11-hour flight for five solid hours of uninterrupted quality sleep, which in my world qualifies as nothing short of miraculous. The bedding package includes a thin covered-foam mattress pad, reasonably comfortable mid-firm pillow, and easily the nicest duvet I’ve ever enjoyed in-flight.|

My biggest praise to Fiji comes on a wildly controversial topic; they kept the cabin quite cool overnight, which left me well-rested and absolutely thrilled, but was… less of a hit with my wife, who slept with a toque and extra sweatshirt.

I wish more airlines would follow Fiji’s lead on this; at least if you’d like to be warmer, you can add layers, but I’ve lost more than a few nights’ sleep sweating like crazy on long flights with Turkish or Swiss, who follow the ’sauna’ model of cabin comfort.


One unique and important feature of Fiji's cabin layout; while most airlines place the lavatories in the forward and aft galleys, behind solid walls, on this aircraft the lavatory opens directly onto the cabin adjacent to seat 1G. This makes for an awful lot of noise throughout the night, for the people in the nearby seats. I can only guess this was done to let them maximize the number of seats in the cabin; I can't think of another reason anyone would want to do this.


Arrival

On arrival at Nadi, the business cabin disembarked first, and as our Vancouver flight was the first of the daily long-hauls to arrive, we walked directly to an empty customs hall, collected our bags within minutes and cleared Customs about as quickly as I’ve ever done on an international flight.


Final Thoughts

Fiji get an awful lot right, and the few bits they got wrong - mainly in service training for in-flight crew - aren’t hard to revise. I would happily fly them again anytime, whether to the South Pacific islands or as a connecting option to Australia or New Zealand. Hopefully, their aggressive sales strategy will introduce them to a wide base of new customers, as I think the funding to continue their growth plan will continue to show solid results.

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