It’s official: There’s a new contender on the list of the world’s longest flights and TPG was aboard.
Air New Zealand completed its first round-trip flight between Auckland (AKL) and New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) this weekend, with the segment from JFK to Auckland departing Saturday evening in New York and arriving in Auckland 16 hours and 36 minutes later on Monday morning (or Sunday afternoon New York time). The first flight from Auckland to New York arrived earlier on Saturday.
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With the inaugural flight out of the way, Air New Zealand’s new thrice-weekly service gives the airline the prize for the world’s fourth longest flight (8,828 miles, according to Great Circle Mapper, blocked at 17 hours and 35 minutes), just behind Singapore Airlines’ nonstop flights from Singapore to JFK (9,537 miles, 18 hours and 40 minutes) and Newark (9,534 miles, 18 hours and 30 minutes) and the Perth-London operation flown by Qantas (9,010 miles, blocked at 17 hours and 15 minutes).
Although the Singapore flights operate on A350-900ULR aircraft with only business class and premium economy, Air New Zealand includes a coach cabin on its Auckland-JFK service.
The flight marks the return of ultra-long-haul route expansion, a trend among the world’s airlines in the late-2010s that was shelved as the pandemic brought global travel to a halt.
It also represents a major new flagship route for majority state-owned Air New Zealand as the country seeks to aggressively expand its tourism base. Notably, the airline chose to give the primary flight number to the segment bringing passengers to Auckland, rather than the departing flight: JFK to Auckland bears the flight number NZ1, while the northbound flight from Auckland to New York is NZ2.
The U.S. market is important to New Zealand, and a nonstop from New York is expected to increase the country’s appeal with it now reopened to tourists. Prior to the pandemic, the U.S. was the third-biggest tourism market for New Zealand (behind Australia and China), comprising 10% of all visitors and 13% of all visitor spend, according to Tourism New Zealand.
The new flight route is expected to bring $65 million annually into New Zealand’s economy, airline CEO Greg Foran told the New Zealand Herald.
While airline executives and New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, were meant to fly on the initial segment to New York, Ardern canceled in order to attend the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II.
Ahead of the flight, a sense of importance was palpable. Advertisements for the flight have been all over the city for weeks, the New Zealand press has been covering the flight extensively, and the hours before the inaugural were exciting for airline and airport employees and passengers alike.
While the southbound flight was an exciting one for Air New Zealand, the airline kept it low-key for the JFK departure after celebrating earlier in Auckland for the departure.
As the flight boarded and departed, it was impossible to avoid thinking of Project Sunrise, the effort by Australian flag carrier Qantas to launch nonstop flights from Sydney to London and New York, which would represent the first- and second-longest commercial flights, respectively. The airline currently operates those routes with a stop.
Qantas performed a proof-of-concept Project Sunrise test flight in 2019, flying a newly delivered Boeing 787-9 from JFK to Sydney, repeating the test with a separate flight from London. The test flights, blocked at about 19 hours, received significant attention despite criticism that without a concrete start date, the flights were merely publicity stunts. Qantas has since purchased A350-1000ULR aircraft from Airbus for the flights, which it says it plans to launch in 2025. Several current TPG staffers, this reporter included, were aboard the 2019 test flight.
With the launch of Auckland-New York, Air New Zealand has managed to beat Qantas to offering regularly scheduled nonstop service between the East Coast and the Oceania region that includes Australia and New Zealand, even though the new service lags behind the Singapore Airlines routes in terms of the crown of “world’s longest.”
Qantas, however, is racing to compete for the U.S. East Coast. The airline announced it will also launch a flight from Auckland to New York as a fifth-freedom route, with a connection from Sydney, starting next June.
For the next nine months, however, Air New Zealand has the nonstop route to itself, offering it time to settle into the new market.
Air New Zealand operates the AKL-JFK flights with a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner specially configured with a more premium-focused cabin than the rest of its 787-9 fleet. The Dreamliners on the New York route feature 27 lie-flat business-class seats, 33 premium economy recliners, 215 regular economy seats and 13 Economy Skycouches. The Skycouches allow passengers to book an entire row of three economy seats, which, when coupled with raiseable footrests, creates a couch-like setup.
The rest of Air New Zealand’s Dreamliners feature 18 business-class seats, 21 premium economy seats, 263 economy seats and 16 Skycouch rows. The airline also recently announced a new business-class product and the Skynest economy sleeper pod, although those have not entered service yet.
As is the case with any ultra-long-haul flight, the trek between Auckland and New York felt like a slog, even in the premium cabins. Nevertheless, with the route well-timed for sleep, it was possible to get a decent night’s rest while still getting some work done or watching some movies — for instance, the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, which was famously filmed in New Zealand.
Editor’s note: We have a full inside look at the first flight from New York to Auckland coming soon — be sure to check TPG Monday morning for more.