Auckland to New York with Air New Zealand: the first direct flight

After four years of planning, the day had finally arrived. Passengers, champagne in hand, were milling elbow to elbow through the crowded terminal, buzzing with anticipation for Air New Zealand’s first direct flight to New York from New Zealand.

The airline’s chief executive, Greg Foran, first revealed details of the service in 2019 and the maiden voyage due to take off on October 29 the following year. But the launch has been postponed indefinitely due to the pandemic, with much of the airline’s international fleet grounded in the California desert.

Air New Zealand's first direct flight to New York from Auckland lands on Sunday morning.

Air New Zealand

Air New Zealand’s first direct flight to New York from Auckland lands on Sunday morning.

But on Saturday, NZ2 covered more than 14,000 kilometers in 16 hours, a route which is expected to earn $65 million a year on its “limited” three-a-week schedule.

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The Journey to the Big Apple

It all started with passengers walking on a purple carpet and being photographed by fake paparazzi at the airport. Salmon bagels and donuts were eaten, a DJ in a glittering silver jacket played house music and wished everyone a good flight.

The sense of glamor at the terminal event was only tempered by the blandness and gentle melancholy of airports – a place that signifies endings, absences and distance.

Walking through the airport without a mask before flying halfway around the world felt like a surreal bookend to nearly three years of pandemic restrictions, and it was hard to shake the feeling that you needed your mask on.

Most of the passengers seemed to be traveling for business or pleasure, and there was a feeling of buoyancy. However, it was very hot at the terminal and many passengers – myself included – were already dehydrated, a feeling probably exacerbated by the bubbles.

The popular legroom of the 35F seat.

Bridie Witton / Stuff

The popular legroom of the 35F seat.

In the plane, I was seated in 35F, in the first row. I was pleased to find that it offered a bit more legroom. My neighbor across the street was close enough to chat with me. In our seats were blackout eye masks, all-bird care, and a luxe lip balm from Ashley and Co.

After takeoff – through an opening in the curtain – we could see Foran handing out drinks to premium passengers, but he didn’t give economy the favor.

Dinner was a choice of chicken korma with basmati rice or braised lamb with potatoes and peas. I tried the lamb, which I found quite tasty, but the vegetarian option – a chickpea curry and rice – was quite bland, I was told. The meals also came with rice crackers and cheese, and a small dessert.

The braised lamb dinner option.

Bridie Witton / Stuff

The braised lamb dinner option.

(Vegetarians were later disappointed when their breakfast again involved chickpeas.)

After five hours of flying, I felt like it might be bedtime. I washed my face, brushed my teeth, took some magnesium sleeping pills, a melatonin pill and hoped for the best.

Sleep is elusive on most long-haul flights, but after about three hours of squirming around in the seat, it was clear that it wouldn’t come to me. The extra legroom was a small mercy, but the aisle seat meant that as soon as I tried to relax, my knees or forehead would encroach on the aisle and get knocked over by passers-by.

If I leaned the other way I was depriving my neighbor in the middle of his personal space. I tried to put my feet on the wall in front, so I was in the shape of a human boomerang, but after a while in this position, I started to lose feeling in my toes.

A man a few seats behind us was struggling to clear his throat. I counted up to 12 throat clearings. Another passenger, in the early hours of the morning, began to pay loudly for music from his phone thinking it was plugged in.

I started thinking about all the muscle groups and tried to relax them. I would manage it at first, but I would soon find that I was clenching my jaw again. The man coughed again. I would not sleep.

It was scrambled eggs and beans for breakfast.

Bridie Witton / Stuff

It was scrambled eggs and beans for breakfast.

The Air New Zealand crew were, as always, very professional and friendly. More snacks came throughout the flight, keeping passengers well-fed and docile before disembarking the plane for New York.

Later, when the flight was in its final hours and I was delirious with fatigue, Foran helped me pick up some of my flight trash.

Sleep deprivation and some discomfort seemed like a small price to pay for traveling again. New Zealand has begun to reconnect with the rest of the world.

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