Grant Bradley flies on Air New Zealand flight NZ26 — the inaugural flight from Auckland to Chicago.
A Boeing 787-9 aircraft, 14 months old. One of the airline's newer aircraft and fitted with later-model Rolls-Royce engines that aren't subject to the same checks and range restrictions that have afflicted other planes in its fleet.
Class: Business Premier, which has 27 seats in the cabin at the front of the plane. This is more than double the number of premium seats than in the older Dreamliners, reflecting growing demand for high-end travel by business travellers and well-heeled holiday makers.
Price: Around this time of year booked at short notice, one-way tickets in Economy cost $1045, which is at least $200 less than indirect flights for now, Premium Economy is $2545 and Business Premier $4985.
7K, a window seat, although because of the herringbone layout you have your back to it. It's a useful stretching exercise to get a peek out the window. The layout has been around for a decade or so — it means you're looking at the person in the same row when on the starboard side of the plane. They don't afford the same privacy you have on other airlines' Business cabins but with friendly companions in neighbouring seats, it wasn't a problem. The airline is well into a project to completely remodel the cabin on its next generation of wide-body planes. The clean, sleek styling on the Dreamliner still holds up, the sliding table is excellent and, with the press of a button, the soft leather seat becomes one of the comfiest beds in the sky.
On time? We pushed back a couple of minutes after the scheduled time but more than made up for it along the way. The airline plans for 15 hours for the northbound flight but friendly flying conditions meant we landed almost an hour ahead of schedule.
Fellow passengers: When airline chief executive Christopher Luxon is on the PA welcoming passengers on board you know this is a special flight. He was heading back to the city where he lived for six years and naturally excited. In Business Premier there was a small media contingent from New Zealand and Australia, other Air New Zealand executives, travel firm bosses and tourism minister Kelvin Davis.
How full: Some spare seats further back. The plane can take 275, but there were 210 on board meaning we were 15 tonnes under the maximum take-off weight to 250 tonnes.
The flight: This is the airline's longest by a fair margin, over Houston (we ended up flying 13,250km with a push back to docking time of 14hr, 38m) and is in the top 20 of ultra-long range services operated around the world. The inaugural flight was timed to arrive around lunchtime in Chicago in time for festivities later in the day. The regular three-times-a-week service will depart around 8pm. Our path took us north of Tahiti, over northern Mexico and over New Mexico, Kansas and Missouri before dropping in Illinois.
Entertainment: Love the touch screen, which is not enormous but plenty big enough. Plenty of movies and the one that really matters, Chasing Great, the Richie McCaw epic. There is no Wi-Fi on board — yet.
Service: Ten flight attendants in total and three on duty in the premium cabin. When passengers were awake they never stopped working, top notch.
Food and drink: For invited guests there was a function in the Air New Zealand lounge, with pizza in honour of Chicago. Plenty of welcome drinks on offer, the Champagne is Laurent-Perrier Brut MV. I stuck to water as I was working. The flight offers dinner (I went for smoked duck breast and an Asian style hapuku) and breakfast — sweet corn fritters for me. It was beautifully presented and delicious. Chicago hot dogs with mustard pickle and relish were on offer for mid-flight and passed the test.
Toilets: Two, quirkily decorated, at the front dedicated to Business Premier, two between that cabin and Premium Economy that are effectively shared so an outstanding pan-to-passenger ratio.
Luggage: Up to three pieces of luggage at 23kg.
The airport experience: Plenty of help available for online check-in at Air New Zealand's premium check-in, a nice refuge at a busy Auckland Airport where the express lane for processing was much appreciated. The departure area airside has been completely transformed in the space of a year and there's a huge range of dining and shopping options. O'Hare handles 80 million passengers a year — four times the number who pass through Auckland, but we were lucky to get a VIP journey through that airport.
The bottom line: No matter what duration the flight, sitting in a very comfortable place isalways better than down the back and that's especially true on an ultra-long range flight.
Other airlines make a bit more a fuss with special menus and exercise regimes — Qantas' Perth-London, Singapore Airlines' flight to New York spring to mind — but those are at least two hours longer. Like other ultra-long haul flights I've done it's not quite a doddle, but with the excellent product, service and food, and a great bed I could have gone longer.