A small fire inside New York JFK’s Terminal 1 led to big consequences with a 16-hour ‘flight to nowhere’ when an Air New Zealand flight from Auckland was forced to return to Aotearoa after it had already made it halfway across the North Pacific Ocean en route to New York.
The fire broke out in the early hours of Thursday morning and was quickly and safely extinguished, but not before it damaged power systems that left the entire terminal without power.
Terminal 1 serves around 20 foreign airlines and while some carriers were able to divert their aircraft into other terminals, others were told there was simply no spare capacity and that they wouldn’t be allowed to land at JFK on Thursday.
Air New Zealand found itself marked as one of the airlines that wouldn’t be allowed to land at JFK but not before its ultra-long-haul NZ2 Auckland to New York flight had already taken off.
In fact, by the point that the pilots of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner finally learned that power at Terminal 1 wouldn’t be restored in time for their arrival, they had already been in the air for more than eight hours.
At this point, the pilots reportedly made a suggestion to at least get the passengers to the United States. Messages from the flight deck that were obtained by aviation insider xJonNYC on Twitter show how the pilots asked to divert to Houston, where passengers could get onward domestic flights or wait in hotels before continuing on to JFK.
When this suggestion was rebuffed, the pilots even suggested a quick pitstop and crew change in some other U.S. city before carrying on to New York. This idea was also declined by the airline.
Instead, the aircraft was forced to make a 180-degree turn and head straight back to Auckland, where the passengers and crew landed 16 hours after first taking off from the very same city.
A spokesperson for the airline, however, defended its decision to return to Auckland, saying in a statement that “diverting to another US port would have meant the aircraft would remain on the ground for several days, impacting a number of other scheduled services and customers”.
It wasn’t just the passengers onboard Air New Zealand flight AZ2 that had a long day, though. A number of other flights were also forced to either divert or return to their origin, including Korean Air flight KE85 from Seoul, which returned to South Korea after more than five hours in the air.
Several other flights were able to divert to other New York area airports.
The Air New Zealand saga comes less than a month after Emirates operated a 14-hour ‘flight to nowhere’ when a Dubai to Auckland flight was forced to make a mid-air return because of wild weather that flooded Auckland Airport’s international terminal.
Air New Zealand launched its Auckland to New York JFK route last year after a pandemic-induced delay.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.