Air New Zealand’s Surprising 16+ Hour Flight To Nowhere

Air New Zealand’s Surprising 16+ Hour Flight To Nowhere

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While we hear of flights returning to their origin every so often, this one has to set some sort of a record. Long story short, an Air New Zealand Boeing 787 flew from Auckland to Auckland in a bit over 16 hours…

Air New Zealand’s very long flight from Auckland to Auckland

This incident happened on Thursday, February 16, 2023, and involves Air New Zealand flight NZ2 from Auckland (AKL) to New York (JFK). The flight was operated by a roughly four year old Boeing 787-9 with the registration code ZK-NZQ. At 8,828 miles, this is the world’s fifth longest route.

The flight was scheduled to depart Auckland at 7:45PM and arrive in New York at 5:40PM the same day, after a 15hr55min journey. Unfortunately that’s not exactly how things played out — the plane ended up flying for longer than that, but landed in Auckland rather than New York.

Why would that happen? Well, the flight took off from Auckland at 8:20PM, roughly as scheduled, and began its long journey to New York, flying northeast across the Pacific. Unfortunately while the plane was in the air, JFK Terminal 1 ended up shutting down. There had been a small fire in the terminal overnight, leading to a power outage in the terminal.

Rather than diverting to another airport or using a different terminal at JFK, Air New Zealand made a different operational decision. 7hr40min after departing Auckland, the plane turned around to fly back to New Zealand. With the headwinds when flying westbound, the return journey took even longer. The flight ended up landing in Auckland 16hr5min after departing from the same airport, at around 12:25PM on Friday.

While we’ve seen flights sometimes return to their origin due to operational reasons, this is the first 16+ hour flight I can recall operating in this way. Ouch.

Air New Zealand’s 16+ hour flight from Auckland to Auckland

Why would this flight return all the way to Auckland?

Air New Zealand is getting a lot of flak for returning to Auckland, rather than flying to some other airport. After all, passengers ended up flying longer than they would have to their destination, and surely there was somewhere they could divert to… right?

The decision to return to Auckland was made by Air New Zealand’s operations folks, and not the pilots. @XJonNYC even shares screenshots of alleged messages from the pilots of this flight to Air New Zealand’s operations center, proposing alternatives so that the plane wouldn’t have to return all the way to Auckland:

  • “Hi what about Houston we could stop there pax could either wait with us for 12 hours or pax domestic to any other JFK terminal”
  • “Hi again btw we have a full paxing crew onboard maybe poss to get them to operate to JFK and our crew to pax after a wee break”

So, is there any world in which Air New Zealand made the right decision, flying all the way back to Auckland? Let’s of course note that we don’t have perfect information here, and we don’t know everything that Air New Zealand’s operations team knew. Furthermore, we have to acknowledge that there was a lot of uncertainty about what was going on, and when JFK Terminal 1 will be operational again.

Let’s assume for a moment that operating to another terminal at JFK wasn’t an option, and that a diversion to EWR wasn’t being offered. Air New Zealand absolutely could have operated to another airport (Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, etc.), and then rebooked passengers on connections to their final destination.

However, there would also have been some challenges associated with that:

  • Air New Zealand would have had to find hundreds of hotel rooms, at a station where the airline has no (or few) employees; people would have no doubt complained about the horrible customer service on the ground
  • It’s anyone’s guess when Air New Zealand could fly to JFK again, given that there’s no opening date or time for JFK Terminal 1
  • Air New Zealand would have a plane and crew out of place
  • Air New Zealand likely wouldn’t have been able to carry passengers booked from New York to Auckland either, since there would be no practical way to get them to whatever gateway Air New Zealand diverted to

So while it seems outrageous to return to Auckland, Air New Zealand seemed to decide on going with the safe option here, maintaining control of the situation as much as possible, and minimizing the unknowns. Air New Zealand can much more easily accommodate passengers at its biggest hub in terms of hotels, rebooking, crewing, aircraft scheduling, etc.

Furthermore, while a 16 hour “flight to nowhere” seems wasteful, realistically the plane would have probably flown back empty from the United States as well, so I’m not sure this is actually worse environmentally than whatever the alternative would have been.

Obviously this situation isn’t ideal, and maybe Air New Zealand was acting too conservatively here. But assuming other New York area airports weren’t available for a diversion, I can appreciate how this seemed like the best option.

Bottom line

JFK Terminal 1 has shut down due to a power outage, which is having major implications for airlines. Some flights diverted to other airports, while other flights returned to their origin. However, Air New Zealand was in a league of its own in operating a 16+ hour flight to its origin, as the plane returned to Auckland roughly half way through its journey.

Of course we don’t have the full background on why this decision was made, but it’s interesting to see that the pilots were pushing for the plane to continue to another point in the United States, only for that to not be approved by the carrier’s operations team.

What do you make of Air New Zealand’s New York flight returning to Auckland?

Conversations (31)
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  1. James C Guest

    I guess after having yet another 1.5 days of flight cancellation last week due to the cyclone in NZ, after the 2 days of flights cancellation a couple of weeks ago due to the flood at Auckland Airport.
    Air NZ really couldn't afford to have a plane sit on the ground in the USA for a few extra hours. They already got way more misplaced passengers than they could handle so they'd rather get...

    I guess after having yet another 1.5 days of flight cancellation last week due to the cyclone in NZ, after the 2 days of flights cancellation a couple of weeks ago due to the flood at Auckland Airport.
    Air NZ really couldn't afford to have a plane sit on the ground in the USA for a few extra hours. They already got way more misplaced passengers than they could handle so they'd rather get the plane back to help clear the backlog of passengers. Waiting 12 hours at Houston or wherever before taking off again to New York (and then it still takes another 18hrs to get the plane back to Auckland) would have been too time consuming for Air NZ given the situation they are in already.

  2. ngm Guest

    Now, if only the diverted flight also accumulated airmiles!

  3. RF Guest

    They should have gone ahead to EWR. ORD, IAH, LAX, SFO are also options.

  4. nicolas Guest

    EWR EWR EWR EWR!!!!!!

    You have got 8 hours to talk to United, re position your outbound flight crew, notify as many passengers as possible, iron any possible kinks with Customs, FAA, Port Authority etc etc etc land in NYC at your Star Alliance partner second largest hub. It was absolutely criminal.

  5. Weymar Osborne Gold

    We'll sometime see cases of flights returning to hub because a diversion to a different country could cause all sorts of problems with visas and immigration status of passengers. That obviously isn't an issue here since all the logical diversion points were in the US anyway. I get that diversions can be expensive because of having to find hotel rooms for passengers but operating a single long-haul flight probably costs a decent ways into the...

    We'll sometime see cases of flights returning to hub because a diversion to a different country could cause all sorts of problems with visas and immigration status of passengers. That obviously isn't an issue here since all the logical diversion points were in the US anyway. I get that diversions can be expensive because of having to find hotel rooms for passengers but operating a single long-haul flight probably costs a decent ways into the six figures. I'm not really convinced that returning to origin, especially that far into a flight, would really save money. In my mind the only barrier would be logistics. Yes, crews have time limits and gate space has to be acquired, and diverting to Newark may have caused problems since ANZ doesn't normally fly there (which still isn't too convincing an argument for me). Nonetheless I still don't know why any one of LA, Honolulu, San Francisco, Houston or Chicago couldn't be considered. ANZ flies to all of those places and those latter two cities have frequencies that are less than daily so they probably had a crew just sitting around on the ground and I don't think bumping up the crew to work the diverted flight would have left a subsequent flight without a crew. Only remaining problem is getting pax to their final destinations. I get that rebooking them on to UA may not be as straightforward as it seems since introducing a 787 worth of passengers into a route network that extensive isn't going to be totally seamless. If the ANZ plane were to divert to another airport and a.) wait around for JFK T1 to open or b.) fly to Newark instead surely that wouldn't be considered an 8th freedom flight and cause legal problems right? Could a layover crew on the ground operate a flight from whatever hub to NYC and back?

    I actually graduated from college with a degree in economics last year, and incorporated the economics of airlines extensively into my studies. I'm thinking of pursuing a graduate degree and these sorts of things would be fascinating to be able to learn more in depth about.

    1. Henry Guest

      The other cities don't have crew sitting around. They have crews getting minimum rest requirements.

      It would save money by having the plane back on schedule flying people. Sure maybe 200ish on flight. But if plane gets stuck down range you know have 1000s of people disrupted. Remember AirNZ has no extra planes at the moment as trying to move the backlog from the recent cyclone.

  6. Piero Guest

    Same for an ITA flight from MXP https://www.milanotoday.it/attualita/volo-new-york-dirottato-malpensa.html, for sure a shorter flight, but damn!

  7. Ben Guest

    In my limited experience with Air New Zealand their operational decisions Don't always make sense. I flew from CHC ro AKL a couple days ago and spent 2 hours on the tarmac because of the high wind due to ground crew safety. After getting to the gate the bags didn't get unloaded until the following day, again due to high winds and ground safety, although all international flights and other domestic flights were operating l.

  8. Michele Carbone Guest

    Hi, I was on NZ2 and I don’t believe for a moment that another terminal or east coast airport was not an option. We received absolutely no communication aboard (we found out by looking at flight tracker when most people began to realize the plane had turned around.) About 45 min before landing the pilot, who sounded annoyed with this decision told passengers that we would be landing in Auckland. I later spoke with the...

    Hi, I was on NZ2 and I don’t believe for a moment that another terminal or east coast airport was not an option. We received absolutely no communication aboard (we found out by looking at flight tracker when most people began to realize the plane had turned around.) About 45 min before landing the pilot, who sounded annoyed with this decision told passengers that we would be landing in Auckland. I later spoke with the pilot and he acknowledged that he was hoping to land somewhere on the east coast.

    I read your post and although I appreciate that there may have been on the ground scheduling problems say if we landed in EWR, consider this…
    - it was total chaos in Auckland and the customer service was dismal… so not sure if the customer experience was improved at AirNZ hub
    - the flight was destined for the NY area… so that’s where most passengers were going…for those going onward (to Europe) they were likely flying other carriers and ANz wouldn’t need to worry about it
    - if you know the NJ/NY area, you know that getting between the 1/2 dozen airports is relatively easy and inexpensive for those folks who did need to get back to JFK
    - same goes for people who live in the NY metro area… a train would take them home from EWR, Dulles, Philadelphia etc,

    So basically getting us to east coast would have been the most convenient for the passengers. But perhaps I’ve misunderstood ANZ’s priority… it seems they were concerned with their convenience and I’m guessing costs.

    Bottom line, we NZ 2 passengers paid for a flight to JFK… not to the middle of the Pacific and back to Auckland. I acknowledge the JFK problems but ANZ clearly put their priorities before taking care of the 200 people on their plane already IN THE AIR.

    Unfortunately I have another 1/2 dozen ANZ flights already booked… but they will be my last ANZ flights.

    1. Watson Diamond

      Were you offered any compensation for the inconvenience?

  9. Bkojot Guest

    There is some serious logistics failure here. There's 4 other terminals at JFK, all of which are set up for international arrivals. Hell, T7 is pretty much vacant at this point given the BA move, to say nothing of EWR.

    This is a pretty big failure of management that there's zero contingency for something like a power failure in a terminal with only like 9 gates.

  10. derek Guest

    Shows how dangerous Air New Zealand is. If there is a mechanical problem, they would rather die trying to get back to Auckland than land.

  11. 9volt Gold

    Why not fly to LAX, then rebook the passengers on UA to EWR? Plus, they already have the hotel agreements in place for the crew, since NZ already flies there.

    1. Alan Guest

      Yep LAX seemed a really obvious alternative to me too given they already have agreements and crew there!

    2. Henry Guest

      Not really the 777-300s are serving LAX mostly at the moment so the plane would be stuck in LAX for days until can get crew there and rested before flying the plane back to AKL.

      In that time the 200 inconvenienced people are now 2000 people as the plane isn't flying. Remember AirNZ is still recovering from the cyclone and all the spare planes are deployed trying to get through the backlog.

  12. HkCaGu Guest

    Yeah, a crew and another plane can be ready to take passengers to JFK immediately after that flight-to-nowhere lands at AKL, but would subject passengers to 32 hours of flying.

    1. YinDaoYan Diamond

      A cabin full of cranky sleep deprived Karens with BO

    2. Michael Guest

      A pissed-off mob, in this case, could not be dismissed as a bunch of "Karens". They were subjected to one of the longest flights in the world, just to end up no closer to their destination. To add insult to injury, any layman can see a large number of diversion opportunities that would at least put people within spitting distance of NYC, their intended destination.

      ANZ apparently learned how to handle irregular operations from Southwest....

      A pissed-off mob, in this case, could not be dismissed as a bunch of "Karens". They were subjected to one of the longest flights in the world, just to end up no closer to their destination. To add insult to injury, any layman can see a large number of diversion opportunities that would at least put people within spitting distance of NYC, their intended destination.

      ANZ apparently learned how to handle irregular operations from Southwest. If the passengers were to riot in Auckland, I'd be hard-pressed to vote to convict on any charge if I was a juror.

    3. Henry Guest

      Yes if you looked at the bigger picture you will observe the main IRROP at the moment is getting through the backlog of people after the cyclone. With all planes deployed they don't want a plane stuck at random airport not flying pax waiting to get a crew there.

    4. John Guest

      Yep they have learned from the Southwest melt down. Don't get planes stuck at airports which have no rested crew to fly the plane on the next sector and thus avoiding causing a massive cascade of cancellations as the plane isn't where it is scheduled to be.

      Getting the plane back to AKL was the best way to stop a cascade of cancellations.

  13. Chris Guest

    FFS they are star alliance. EWR is the best option and borrow a gate from UA.

    1. Tom Guest

      Or LAX where Air NZ flies to anyway.

    2. Flow Guest

      Agreed, very odd they didn't think about EWR.

    3. Scudder Diamond

      Due to the JFK situation, EWR has imposed restrictions on arrivals not previously scheduled. (except actual inflight emergencies)

    4. Michael Guest

      Okay, so divert to IAD then. You get support from United, options to get people to NYC, and you don't piss off a plane load of people cramming them in for sixteen hours to end up nowhere.

  14. JS Guest

    I've always wondered, what happens in terms of mileage accrual on these flights? I assume if the flight is listed as cancelled, you get nothing?

    1. Nelson Diamond

      @JS,
      I believe you're right. You get nothing but your flight will still happen if you want, so you will get your miles on the next flight.

    2. Mallthus Guest

      Typically the miles will post per the original flight mileage, although sometimes you'll need to contact the airline or the airline you're accruing to in order to get them posted.

      In this case, miles should accrue for NZ2 (AKL-JFK), then additionally for whatever flight(s) passengers were rebooked to.

  15. Nelson Diamond

    I assume this must have been a terrible situation for the pax, unless you didn't have any "need" to be on time in JFK or flying Business Class. Many other Carriers did the same, like AZ.
    But hey, see it the positive way, it's unlikely those passengers will ever have a similar situation anytime. :-)

    1. Michael Guest

      That is true. Given all the options available to get the passengers within spitting distance of NYC, which even a layman can see, I doubt many of these passengers will voluntarily give ANZ the opportunity to give them the same treatment again, ever.

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James C Guest

I guess after having yet another 1.5 days of flight cancellation last week due to the cyclone in NZ, after the 2 days of flights cancellation a couple of weeks ago due to the flood at Auckland Airport. Air NZ really couldn't afford to have a plane sit on the ground in the USA for a few extra hours. They already got way more misplaced passengers than they could handle so they'd rather get the plane back to help clear the backlog of passengers. Waiting 12 hours at Houston or wherever before taking off again to New York (and then it still takes another 18hrs to get the plane back to Auckland) would have been too time consuming for Air NZ given the situation they are in already.

2
Henry Guest

Not really the 777-300s are serving LAX mostly at the moment so the plane would be stuck in LAX for days until can get crew there and rested before flying the plane back to AKL. In that time the 200 inconvenienced people are now 2000 people as the plane isn't flying. Remember AirNZ is still recovering from the cyclone and all the spare planes are deployed trying to get through the backlog.

1
Michele Carbone Guest

Hi, I was on NZ2 and I don’t believe for a moment that another terminal or east coast airport was not an option. We received absolutely no communication aboard (we found out by looking at flight tracker when most people began to realize the plane had turned around.) About 45 min before landing the pilot, who sounded annoyed with this decision told passengers that we would be landing in Auckland. I later spoke with the pilot and he acknowledged that he was hoping to land somewhere on the east coast. I read your post and although I appreciate that there may have been on the ground scheduling problems say if we landed in EWR, consider this… - it was total chaos in Auckland and the customer service was dismal… so not sure if the customer experience was improved at AirNZ hub - the flight was destined for the NY area… so that’s where most passengers were going…for those going onward (to Europe) they were likely flying other carriers and ANz wouldn’t need to worry about it - if you know the NJ/NY area, you know that getting between the 1/2 dozen airports is relatively easy and inexpensive for those folks who did need to get back to JFK - same goes for people who live in the NY metro area… a train would take them home from EWR, Dulles, Philadelphia etc, So basically getting us to east coast would have been the most convenient for the passengers. But perhaps I’ve misunderstood ANZ’s priority… it seems they were concerned with their convenience and I’m guessing costs. Bottom line, we NZ 2 passengers paid for a flight to JFK… not to the middle of the Pacific and back to Auckland. I acknowledge the JFK problems but ANZ clearly put their priorities before taking care of the 200 people on their plane already IN THE AIR. Unfortunately I have another 1/2 dozen ANZ flights already booked… but they will be my last ANZ flights.

1
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