Executive Traveller exclusive
There’s no stopover, no changing planes – just one sleep, and you’re in the city that never sleeps.
That’s how Air New Zealand is selling its new nonstop flights between Auckland and New York.
Forget about the hassles and headaches of that transit at LAX, a process which can in itself add more than six hours to your over-all journey.
Just settle into your seat – preferably business class – for a 16-17 hour marathon as the Kiwi carrier adds another entry to the leaderboard of ultra-long range flights.
So what’s it like on Air New Zealand’s nonstop NZ2 flight from Auckland to New York?
2pm Saturday, Auckland (10pm Friday, New York)
Air New Zealand’s Auckland International Lounge is noticeably busier, and ‘buzzier’, with the addition of some 250 excited passengers bound for New York.
Among them are Peter Hayes and Sally Brasell, headed to New York with a group for friends to celebrate a 50th birthday.
“It’s such a nightmare transiting through the US,” notes Hayes, a software developer with plenty of US travel under his belt.
“We’ve wanted to go to New York together for a long time, but we don’t want to fly domestically in the US.”
Brasell has seen her share of air travel woes, especially in recent months. “So many people have had their flights canceled, delayed and changed, and we didn’t want that, so having the direct flight means we just get on board and we don’t have to worry about domestic connections at all.”
And even before setting foot on NZ2, they’re already thinking ahead to their next trip.
With one daughter living in London and anther thinking of moving there, “I think if we visited them we’d probably go this way again and transit through New York,” Hayes says – “or we might even meet up with them in New York,” Brasell adds.
Hayes and Brasell typify many of the travellers Air New Zealand hopes will patronise this ambitious new service – people choosing to visit New York on this direct flight almost entirely because it skips the stopover and its associated headaches.
2.30pm Saturday, Auckland (10.30pm Friday, New York)
As befits an inaugural, the lounge is serving up special dishes themed around the destination: today’s US-inspired spread today includes Mac and cheese, beef brisket, corn bread and roast beef sandwiches – later, at the boarding gate, there’s smoked salmon bagels and glazed doughnuts.
But on the flight itself there’ll be a strong element of showcasing the best of New Zealand produce to the world through AirNZ’s new international menu, including seared salmon from Marlborough, free-range chicken from Waikato and vegetables or salads “picked straight from orchards and fields in Gisborne, Waikato and the Manawatu.”
3.15pm Saturday, Auckland (11.15pm Friday, New York)
We’re at the boarding gate, where a white-and-black Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner awaits a 4pm departure.
That's several hours earlier than the scheduled 7.40pm wheels-up which NZ2 will usually see, but being a historic and high-profile first flight there’s a burst of media activity planned around a 4pm arrival into New York.
The regular 7.40pm departure will mean an evening touchdown at New York’s JFK airport, after which travellers can check into their hotel, have a very-NY late supper and cocktail, and then rely on a good night’s sleep to reset their body clock.
The later departure from Auckland will also make NZ2 a better fit for connecting flights from Australia, which Air New Zealand considers a key market for its New York nonstop.
Qantas clearly agrees, having recently announced its own Sydney-Auckland-New York flights beginning in June 2023.
Speaking with Executive Traveller before the flight, Air New Zealand CEO Greg Foran said he was “totally not surprised” at Qantas seeking its own bite of the Big Apple route.
“At some point under their Project Sunrise they’d like to be able to go direct (to New York), they don’t have the metal to be able to do that at this stage, so trying to set something up through Auckland is something that makes complete sense.”
“We welcome them, we think competition is good for everyone and we’ll give them a good wave when we pass them in the skies,” he says with a wry smile.
3.20pm Saturday, Auckland (11.20pm Friday, New York)
Boarding for this epic journey is underway, beginning with business class passengers (or Business Premier, to adopt Air New Zealand’s marketing parlance) along with Gold and Elite members of Air New Zealand’s Airpoints loyalty program.
I’m in seat 2A, on the left-hand side of the 27-berth business class cabin.
The seat itself will be familiar to anybody who’s flown Air New Zealand in the past 17 years: it’s the same ‘cubicle above the clouds’ the airline introduced in August 2005.
Despite measuring 22 inches wide, it feels narrow and confining due to those shoulder-height partitions on either side.
And while it’s a lie-flat bed, just about every other aspect of the business class travel experience has changed since then: which is why the Kiwi carrier has a fresh and far superior Business Premier seat on the way, with all the mod cons plus a better view to the windows, more space and sliding privacy panels, crowned by several even-larger Luxe suites.
But those seats won’t arrive until late 2024, initially on a new fleet of Boeing 787-9s designed for these ultra-long range flights.
Executive Traveller has seen the new business class and premium economy seats first-hand, and they’re exactly what these globe-striding New York flights deserve.
For now, though, it’s the Zen exercise of accepting what you cannot change, and making the most of it – including a pre-flight glass of Laurent-Perrier Brut NV to get this trip off on the right note.
(Bonus tip: choose an ‘A’ seat on the left side of the Dreamliner so you’re not facing your fellow passengers for the entire journey, unlike the J and K seats which open into the same aisle; A seats also have half as many passengers moving up and down ‘your’ aisle.)
Behind business class, a seperate 33-seat premium economy cabin hits the sweet spot for value, with 215 economy seats stretching back to the tail – definitely the hard way to do an ultra-long range flight.
So how do the prices compare between travel classes?
Looking ahead at mid-August 2023, a one-way economy fare from Auckland to New York costs around NZ$1100, with premium economy at NZ$2600 and business class at NZ$5600.
3.50pm Saturday, Auckland (11.50pm Friday, New York)
All 257 passengers for NZ2 are aboard and ready, but 18 economy seats on the 275-berth Dreamliner remaining empty – and that’s by choice, not chance.
With New York near the edge of the aircraft’s range, some seats go unsold in order to offset the weight demanded by the vast amount of jet fuel needed for the trip.
Air New Zealand estimates there’ll typically be 25-35 economy seats held back on the flight to New York, but as many as 55 blocked out on the way to Auckland due to headwinds which push against the aircraft, requiring more fuel and a longer flight time.
Those numbers will constantly shift throughout the year to reflect seasonal and even weekly wind speed forecasts.
By late 2024, the airline will have taken delivery of new Boeing 787-9s with only 219 seats – and a higher share of those in business and premium economy – to boost their effective range so that every seat can be sold on ultra-long range treks to New York, Chicago and Houston.
4.23pm Saturday, Auckland (12.23am Saturday, New York)
And we’re away! There’s a round of applause as the NZ2 Dreamliner leaps into the air with its sights set on New York, which lies almost on the other side of the world.
And this begs the question: why is the flight from Air New Zealand’s Auckland home port designated as NZ2, and not NZ1?
After all, many airlines seem to adopt 1 for their ‘flagship’ route: Qantas has QF1 from Sydney to London; BA had BA1 from London to New York (for a long time, BA1 was exclusively used for the Concorde flight to New York); Emirates and Qatar Airways also assign EK1 and QR1 respectively to a London-bound flight.
As it turns out, Qantas assigns odd numbers to outbound international flights and even numbers to inbound flights to Australia, but Air New Zealand’s practice (and there are exceptions) is that flights heading north and/or east are assigned even numbers, while those heading south and/or west carry odd numbers – which is why the New York-Auckland flight, which carves a south-west route through the skies, carries the prestigious NZ1 badge.
4.40pm Saturday, Auckland (12.40am Saturday, New York)
With some 16 hours stretching ahead, there’s no better time to change into my pyjamas.
I’ve brought along some comfy Qantas first class PJs, but there’s a surprise on this flight: Air New Zealand is rethinking its ‘no pyjama’ policy, with all business class passengers on the inaugural given a pair of bespoke PJs from New Zealand ‘luxury athleisure’ brand Marlow.
In black with violet trim – in other words, totally on-brand for the airline – with a Henley-style top and pockets in the pants, they’re lightweight with a loose relaxed fit.
Although these aren’t yet a standard inclusion in AirNZ business class, Executive Traveller understands the airline bundled them as part of a ‘trial’, so they’re clearly being considered for a future rollout.
Until then, if you’re planning on taking this Air New Zealand flight to New York – or its ultra-long range siblings of Houston and Chicago – we’d strongly recommend BYO PJs.
And here’s a tip: fold down the infant change table to give yourself more room to place and fold your clothes.
Business class passengers also receive an amenity kit with Ashley & Co skincare products in a large stylish black leather Deadly Ponies clutch for which you’ll easily find some post-flight use.
4.55pm Saturday, Auckland (12.55am Saturday, New York)
There’s no time for tardiness as the crew begins our dinner, which also serves as the launch of a new international menu.
To begin, an amuse-bouche of a wild blackfoot paua abalone saucisson with tomato gel and herb cream makes its debut to “the Business Premier dining experience”…
… followed by a tasting plate of smoked salmon with cucumber and salmon caviar, prosciutto with medjool date and quince, and a polenta disc with bocconcini and tapenade.
(The alternative appetiser was green pea and basic soup with black olive crème fraîche)
Three mains were on offer:
- Taupõ prime beef fillet with horseradish jus
- Artisan pasta with tomato sugo, parmesan, fresh mozzarella and basil
- Superfood salad with baby kale, red rice, aubergine, fresh dates, feta, buckwheat, cranberries and pepita seeds, with an orange zest and tahini yoghurt dressing
I chose the superfood salad, with an optional protein boost of roasted free-range chicken (a lemon kelp-dusted salmon fillet is also available)
This was all superb in-flight fare, while the prime beef fillet received rave reviews from other passengers – as did the suggested pairing of Felton Road Block 3 Pinot Noir 2016, which sells for around $120 a bottle.
In short, it’s international business class dining done right, while showcasing some amazing New Zealand produce.
The dessert selection:
- Chocolate and salted caramel ice cream, with sweet and salty popcorn and caramel sauce (shown below, and paired with a sweet ‘late harvest’ Sauvignon Blanc from NZ’s mighty Marlborough region)
- New York cheesecake with apple gel and pecan praline
To finish off, a selection of New Zealand cheese is served with relish and crackers (although I’d have appreciated a wider variety of cheese, more crackers, nuts, dried fruits and other items to create a proper cheese platter, especially if this was to be chosen as a savoury end to the meal for those without a sweet tooth).
This five-course menu easily meets and arguably raises the high standard of Air New Zealand’s inflight meals.
However, its delivery exceeded two hours from first plate down to last plate away, much longer than you’d usually expect: I’m chalking that up to the combined challenges of a menu launch and an inaugural flight with some people in the aisles and a lot of photos being snapped.
To get us through the long gap between dinner and breakfast, mid-flight snacks range from a basket of chips, chocolates, nuts and cookies to a ‘New York-style hotdog with pickles and onions’.
7.30pm Saturday, Auckland (3.30am Saturday, New York)
Glancing around the cabin, almost everyone is relaxing with a post-dinner movie or some episodes of a TV show.
But while Air New Zealand’s well-stocked library offers plenty of choice – including Top Gun 2 – the 11-inch video screen which flips out from the side of the business class seat is smaller than any passengers’ laptop and even some iPads.
This is another major change with the new seats, which will boast a massive 24” personal video screen plus Bluetooth audio streaming to your own cordless noise-cancelling headphones or earbuds.
Like many travellers, these days I tend to bring my own content downloaded onto the laptop, especially episodes of any TV series I’ve been too busy to catch up on.
That said, I’ve heard so many great reports of Top Gun 2… so okay, Tom Cruise, you can be my wingman on NZ1 back to Auckland in a few days’ time.
8pm Saturday, Auckland (4am Saturday, New York)
This is perhaps a good segue into how Air New Zealand manages its flight deck team and pilot rest periods to beat fatigue on its longest-ever flight.
And who better to explain this than one of the airline’s own Top Gun pilots, Captain Philip Kirk. (Yes,’Captain Kirk’ – and yes, he’s heard all the jokes.)
A highly-regarded Air New Zealand pilot who helmed the delivery flight of the airline’s first Boeing 787-9 and helped developed this new route, Kirk is coming off his first shift and headed for a four-hour break on a special roster designed with the help of experts at New Zealand’s Massey University.
“We all know how we feel when we got off a long flight,” Kirk says, “so the aim is we don't feel like you when we get off the flight – we have to feel a bit better than that.”
Air New Zealand has assigned four pilots to the flight deck – two captains and two first officers – “and we split into two operating crews” of captain and first officer, Kirk tells Executive Traveller.
While each team gets a four-hour break for each rest period, after take-off the focus of the overall schedule “is on the operating crew who will be doing the landing, which makes a lot of sense, right?”
“So we bias the crew rest for them so that they’re the freshest out of the two sets.”
On this flight, Kirk’s team is rostered on for the landing at New York – “we come back from our last break about an hour before landing, then we ramp up and get organised.”
And how does Kirk wind down during his breaks? He says the first step is leaving his ‘work’ behind him.
“It’s important that when you go up to the crew rest you’re not thinking about the flight, because you have the confidence they are ready to handle whatever they come up against during that period.”
“So I put my AirPods in and listen to a bit of music or a podcast, or read for a bit, then sleep.”
8.30pm Saturday, Auckland (4.30am Saturday, New York)
It’s time for me to get a few hours of work in before I join Kirk and seemingly the rest of the business class cabin in sky-high slumber.
Carved out beneath the video screen is a recess sufficiently wide and deep to stow a laptop or tablet when not in use – it also contains an AC power socket, while a USB socket is tucked away under the screen itself.
Air New Zealand offers free WiFi to all passengers on international flights, clocking in at between 4-13Mbps, albeit with video streaming disabled in order to maximise the shared connection among all passengers.
Despite the connection’s bothersome stop-start nature, WiFi really comes into its own on a long flight like this.
Besides the obvious ability to attend to emails or attend to last-minute tasks for your trip, there’s the invaluable ability to stay connected with family and friends via messaging and social media. That Air New Zealand doesn’t charge a cent for this is commendable.
10pm Saturday, Auckland (6am Saturday, New York)
Enough work for now, as I attempt to join the rest of the passengers in some shut-eye.
Transforming Air New Zealand’s 787 business class seat into a 2m lie-flat bed is as easy as pressing a button – although that’s not a button to simply recline the seat, instead it’s the call button to have a crew member literally flip the seat over and dress it with the mattress topper and two wide pillows.
(This unique aspect of the seat’s design also prevents it going into that deckchair-style ‘lazy Z’ mode which many frequent flyers find so relaxing – you’re either sitting bolt-upright, in a bit of a recline or lying flat.)
To help you get some Zzz from A to B, Air New Zealand offers a ‘Bliss sleep ritual’ comprising of a chamomile blended tea and a passionflower sleep balm to apply ‘to your wrist and temple pulse points’. Putting a dollar each way, I pair this with a 10mg melatonin tablet.
The final touch is a comfortable eye mask supplied by world-famous NZ brand Allbirds, made from fine New Zealand Merino wool, which is soft and contoured on the inside while sporting a playful owl-like bird-like ‘beak’ nose on the outside.
3.25am Sunday, Auckland (11.25am Saturday, New York)
I rarely achieve more than five hours of sleep on a flight, so I’m awake as we cross into North America, halfway down the coast of Baja California.
There’s a little under five hours to go, according to the flight map; the Boeing 787 is effortlessly slicing through the sky at over 900km/h, its heavily-dimmed windows showing no sign of the bright daylight outside.
From here, the gentle curve of the flight path eventually arcs between Houston and Chicago, Air New Zealand’s two other ‘ultra-long range’ routes.
They’ve both been successful plays at bypassing LAX and helped lay the groundwork for New York.
And while Houston is arguably more of a transit point than a destination in its own right, both it and Chicago offer a slew of connecting flights courtesy of Star Alliance partner United Airlines.
Could more ultra-long range North American routes be on Air New Zealand’s radar?
CEO Greg Foran won’t rule it out: “Let’s see what develops after this, but I think New York’s a great step.”
4.30am Sunday, Auckland (12.30pm Saturday, New York)
Inflight services manager Debbie Ridgway is back up front for the final leg of NZ2.
She’s been flying with Air New Zealand since the 1980s – “back when we used to fly to Frankfurt via LAX” – and tells Executive Traveller her team were “like kids at Christmas” before this flight.
“We were all chatting on our Messenger group, we’re so excited too be chosen for this and to be part of history.”
Ridgway says that as on the flight deck, cabin crew are split into two teams during the journey and will also “do a standby period” during their New York layover “just in case something goes awry and we’re needed.”
Her rest break tips: “I bring my own silk pillowcase which I love, I put in earplugs and I have a tiny hot water bottle.”
4.45am Sunday, Auckland (12.45pm Saturday, New York)
The LED lighting in the cabin begins slowing cycling through a sunrise pattern to help us wake up, ahead of what the menu oddly describes as ‘brunch’ although the selection is more like breakfast.
This begins with a berry smoothie; a fruit bowl, Bircher muesli or cereal; and toast or croissant…
… followed by a choice between:
- scrambled eggs on kumara rosti, shaved pastrami, pickled white cabbage and hollandaise sauce (free-range streaky bacon optional)
- balsamic mushrooms on gluten-free toast with grilled tomato and a rocket salad
- banana and quinoa waffles with roasted fruit compote, vanilla bean yoghurt and vanilla syrup
- bagel with smoked salmon, caper cream cheese and picked red onions
In a nod to NY, I went for the bagel.
It was good to see a proper breakfast being offered, rather than a cursory ‘cafe breakfast’ – although as with dinner, the meal service from start to finish took an inordinately long time, even between courses – perhaps these were just operational teething problems for the first flight.
7.15am Sunday, Auckland (3.15pm Saturday, New York)
Time to slip out of my oh-so-comfy pyjamas and back into more acceptable public attire.
On long flights like these you really appreciate the jet lag-countering passenger comfort features of the Boeing 787.
The lower cabin altitude – equivalent to 6,000 feet above sea level, instead of the 8,000 feet of older jet designs – reduces muscle aches and general fatigue, while there’s more humidity in the cabin to stop your skin from drying out.
The upshot: you reach your destination feeling brighter and sharper, and while you may not have a spring in your step at least it won’t be a zombie-stagger.
I’ve noticed the positive effects of the Boeing 787 – and the Airbus A350, for that matter – compared to older jets like the Boeing 777, and cabin crew on any airline will readily attest to how much better they feel during and after a long flight.
7.45am Sunday, Auckland (3.45pm Saturday, New York)
There’s the PA message we’ve all been waiting for – time to put everything away, fasten your seatbelts and prepare for landing.
First Officer Andrew Hanley takes the stick for the privilege of the inaugural NZ2 touch-down at JFK, with an approach which puts the Manhattan skyline off in the distance to our left (giving A seats the best view).
8.09am Auckland (4.09pm New York)
Touchdown! "Welcome to New York,” Debbie Ridgway announces over the PA, 16 hours and 17 minutes since NZ2 left Auckland. “We made it!”
Ironically, the next and final part of the journey seems the longest: passengers stepping off NZ2 can easily face an hour-long queue for US immigration at JFK airport.
Shuffle, stop, wait… shuffle, stop and wait again… but the lines at LAX can be just as long, and we’d all rather spend that hour knowing we’ve already arrived at New York.
Three hours after we land (thanks, JFK immigration and New York traffic) I’m at our hotel at Times Square.
I’m still a bit blurry around the edges, but that can’t diminish awe for that fact that a single comfortable flight has brought me halfway around the world, from Auckland to The Big Apple – and now I’m eager to hit the pavement and soak up the sights, the experiences and the energy of this extraordinary city.
The writer travelled as a guest of Air New Zealand