Air New Zealand launches its Auckland-Chicago route tomorrow, flying further than ever before and pushing its planes' limits.

It is the airline's most ambitious flight yet, taking it deep into the heart of the lucrative United States market, and is an important part of its growth strategy as it recovers from engine problems with its Dreamliner aircraft.

The new route puts Air New Zealand in the upper tier of ultra-long-range flying and will be the longest to touch down at O'Hare International Airport, the sixth busiest in the world.

During the past six months, airline operational staff have been running "virtual flights" over the 13,200km route to see how weather will affect the service, especially heading southbound into prevailing winds.

Advertisement

The northbound flight is scheduled to take about 15 hours. Heading back to Auckland will take about 16 hours, 90 minutes more than the airline's current longest flight, the return trip from Houston.

Chief flight operations and safety officer David Morgan says Chicago poses challenges in winter with snow and ice, and in summer, thunderstorms and intense heat can be disruptive.

Captain David Morgan, chief flight operations and safety officer. Photo / Greg Bowker.
Captain David Morgan, chief flight operations and safety officer. Photo / Greg Bowker.

The longer the flight, the more variables there are.

"It's not a particularly significant flight time and length going up because of the tail wind, but the challenge is coming back again," says Morgan.

In the wake of the problems with many of its Rolls-Royce Trent engines, the airline was determined to avoid disruption on the three-times-a-week service. The Dreamliners used on the Chicago route are the latest to be delivered to the airline and are fitted with new generation Trent TEN engines which haven't caused airlines problems and are not subject to the extra checks and range restrictions imposed on "Package C" engines.

"It's important that we have a high degree of operational confidence and surety as we come into the Chicago operation," says Morgan.

'Gas and go'

The airline has been testing flight plans by using real-time weather data. So far, no flights would have been affected by weather, but Morgan says the airline is building in a series of contingency responses if there are problems getting out of Chicago on time or there are problems en route.

"We've done quite a bit of wargaming with the ops control guys and worked out if this scenario occurs, how we are going to recover the flight?" Delays can put a crew over their maximum duty hours, but rather than scrub a flight in Chicago, the airline would rather touch down en route and then replace the crew.

"Rather than delaying the flight further and getting another crew out, we would take off and head south and lob into Nadi, for example, gas and go, and by that time we'd have easily got another crew positioned to pick the plane up and carry on." Because the trip is so long, there is time to recover the flight, although Morgan says there are no signs this will be common.

Air New Zealand is stationing more pilots and cabin crew in Chicago to cover contingencies than in other destinations, and they stay in hotels where their access to the airport will not be affected by snow or ice. Already, early winter storms have dumped 30cm of snow on the city and the inaugural flight will arrive to temperatures barely above freezing.

The airline already operates into snow-affected airports in northern Japan and London Heathrow. O'Hare handles about 80 million passengers a year (four times as many as Auckland) and is well set up for de-icing planes on the ground using trucks or special bays to spray them with fluid which removes ice and prevents it re-forming.

The Boeing 787-9 can carry as much as 138,000 litres of fuel and the plane maker says it has a range 1000km beyond the Auckland-Chicago route.

Morgan says the airline hasn't changed its fuel policy for operational integrity of the route but may have to cut the amount of cargo it carries, especially when heading for home.

"We may have to restrict payload at times," he says. "As well as getting cold [in Chicago] it gets hot. When the temperature gets up there, the aircraft requires more runway and more thrust so that can be limiting and we'll manage payload accordingly.

"Obviously, cargo is the first thing that goes. There will be a degree of day-of-operations planning and that will say rather than do the unloading, we do a tech stop, which is still an option." Diverting to airports which the airline already uses would be the first option. These include Houston, Los Angeles, Honolulu, Tahiti, Rarotonga and Nadi, and if there are problems landing at Auckland, the aircraft could divert to Ohakea or Christchurch.

"You'd appreciate the aircraft would arrive a little later, but we don't think this will be a common occurrence at all," says Morgan.

Weight watching

Dreamliners are lighter than similar-sized older planes, which helps fuel efficiency, but Morgan says everything put into an aircraft needs to be necessary — for safety and for passengers' comfort.

This means the airline is looking very closely at what it loads, including drinks, food and water. A lot of food and drink sits in the pantry.

"The reality is, weight is our enemy and we need to justify what we put on. There's always going to be a tradeoff — we've got to deliver the product because that's what our customers pay for and expect."

Air New Zealand also pioneered work on taking moisture out of planes with dehumidifiers and by frequently replacing insulation blankets. Moisture accumulates at about a kilogram a day and during the life of a plane can add up to half a tonne of extra weight.

Flying Long - Air New Zealand flies to Chicago

Because of the length of the flight, the airline has also done more work with Massey University's Sleep/Wake Research Centre, and with unions.

"Because we cross a lot of time zones and have a number of long-range routes, we've built up quite a body of knowledge [but] one of the things we've had to think about quite deeply is the concept of ultra-long-haul because it does go over the point of what we think of as normal operations," says Morgan.

The airline came to a special agreement with Etu union over the flight which will be crewed by 10 flight attendants and four pilots. New rest minimum rest periods during the flight at after it were negotiated, as were special payments for the flight and fatigue monitoring.

Special approval was also needed from the Civil Aviation Authority which reviewed plans for dealing with fatigue and overall health and safety.

Big prize

Chicago is a valuable prize for Air New Zealand. Not only does it take it deep into the midwest and close to the northeast of the US and close to Canada, it flies right into the main hub of revenue sharing partner United Airlines.

United and Air New Zealand are in a revenue sharing agreement where they align on fares, jointly market and sell the route and have reciprocal lounge and frequent flyer schemes. A key feature of the arrangement is access for New Zealand passengers to United's extensive domestic and regional network, and it puts Air NZ more firmly on the radar of the US airline's tens of millions of frequent flyers.

Air NZ will use Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners on flights to Chicago. Photo / Peter Meecham
Air NZ will use Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners on flights to Chicago. Photo / Peter Meecham

United flies 584 daily domestic flights from Chicago to 159 airports, and 46 non-stop international services to Europe, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean and importantly, seven destinations in Canada, where codeshare deals have just been announced.

As part of the deal, hammered out over many months and many trips to Chicago by Air New Zealand, United flies more frequently to Auckland from San Francisco.

Air New Zealand's chief revenue officer, Cam Wallace, says that during the New Zealand summer, most traffic will be southbound, as Americans escape the cold, while more Kiwis will head north during our winter.

Already, there have been encouraging signs, with about 60 per cent of southbound bookings coming from within the Chicago area, with its population of 10 million.

That shows the service is not cannibalising the airline's other US mainland routes, from Houston, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

"For us to open up new markets with high-value customers and free independent travellers fulfils everything from a tourism perspective and is a fantastic opportunity," says Wallace.

"It's the combination of a huge amount of work from our revenue team, our network team, with United Airlines, to give us the ability to have this market."

Market share

Air New Zealand has for several years aggressively targeted Australian passengers, aiming to get them to use Auckland as a hub for trips to the United States — something that annoyed former partner Virgin Australia and is an irritant to new friend Qantas.

Wallace says this will continue with Chicago and he expects flights heading north to be 20 per cent filled by Australians. The first Chicago booking came from Australia.

CAPA Centre for Aviation says the route is very valuable, especially as Air New Zealand has a two-thirds market share of NZ-US non-stop services.

"Where it's picking up US tourists, with US dollars, that becomes really useful as the US dollar strengthens and the economy remains strong," says the centre's executive chairman Peter Harbison.

Forsyth Barr head of research Andy Bowley says that since the boom in airline capacity in recent years, Air New Zealand has got back in front with capacity.

"It did lag, now it's leading and Chicago's an illustration of that. With longer range routes becoming more economic with better technology, it is beating other carriers into new routes and cementing its market position."

Morgan says there is confidence about Chicago within the airline after a tough year with hundreds of flights cancelled because of the engine problems, and customers grumpy about being rebooked on charter planes.

"We've got our mojo back — we started Taipei recently really successfully. We've ticked all the boxes when it comes to Chicago."

Long trip gets easier

Tourism New Zealand says the new non-stop service linking Auckland and Chicago could help persuade more of the 34 million Americans who are considering coming here to actually make the trip.

The United States is an ''incredibly important'' market for our industry, with 226,000 holiday visitors each year contributing more than $850 million to the economy, says Tourism NZ chief executive Stephen England-Hall.

"Air New Zealand's new Chicago route makes New Zealand even easier to travel to for our American visitors.''

It is estimated that more than 34 million Americans are actively considering New Zealand as a holiday destination.

When the route was announced, the spinoff for tourism from its extra 85,000 seats a year was put at $70 million.

Air New Zealand and tourism groups have to work hard to persuade US visitors who are worried about the length of the flight and inconvenient transfers at airports. The non-stop service takes away one of those deterrents.

The lure of the Windy City is already attracting Kiwis, who got a taste of flights there in 2014.

Air New Zealand sent a charter flight to the city carrying the All Blacks and fans for that year's test against the US Eagles. That flight, using a Boeing 777-300, flew via Los Angeles.

Flight Centre NZ's managing director, David Coombes, says that since the service was announced in March, the travel firm has seen almost triple the number of tickets sold to the city compared to last year.

What was most appealing to customers was the great connection to the northeast coast of the US, as a a gateway to places such as New York - less than two hours flying away - and Boston.

''It wasn't that long ago that Air New Zealand only flew into Los Angeles and travellers had to connect from there,'' says Coombes.