CHICAGO — When Air New Zealand flight NZ26 pulled into Chicago-O’Hare’s (ORD) Terminal 5, gate M11 at 12:33 on November 30, 2018, the occasion was historic for both the airline and the airport.

Flight NZ26, which had taken off at 17:01 Auckland time and traveled roughly 8,200 miles, was the carrier’s first commercial nonstop to ORD and its longest flight ever. It also was the longest flight in the airport’s history. 

The Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner actually landed more than half-an-hour early after spending 14 hours, 32 minutes in the air.

The route took it over the Pacific Ocean north of Tahiti, past northern Mexico, then over New Mexico, Kansas, and Missouri before descending into Illinois, according to one passenger.

The return flight, NZ27, was scheduled to leave Chicago at 19:10 and land in Auckland at 06.30 on December 2 (because of the time change). Flying time was estimated at slightly more than 16 hours.

Air New Zealand celebrated the launch with a Haka performance by airline employees in O’Hare’s departure area.

Traditionally used on the battlefield, the ancient Māori war dance also displayed pride, strength, and unity when groups came together in peace. It was a fitting welcome for executives, including the airline’s CEO Christopher Luxon, and New Zealand Minister of Tourism, Kelvin Davis. 

A press conference followed with short speeches by the two men, as well as by Richard Butler representing the Chicago Department of Aviation and David Whitaker, CEO of Choose Chicago.

They all touted the new service as providing exciting opportunities for travelers, and they also exchanged gifts.

The New Zealanders gave the Chicagoans a model of a waka, a Māori canoe, and received in return a copy of the Plan of Chicago.

Luxon, who lived in Chicago from 2003 to 2009 while working for consumer goods giant Unilever, explained that an important reason for making ORD Air New Zealand’s sixth North American gateway was its status as a main hub for Star Alliance partner United Airlines (UA).

“The new service to Chicago provides customers with convenient one-stop code-share connections to approximately 100 destinations across the U.S.,” he said.

In addition, travelers can book seats on the route using United’s reservation system, which should help boost the 340,000 annual visitors from the United States.  

Luxon pointed out that millions of U.S. residents have New Zealand on their bucket list but many don’t go because they perceive it as being too far away and too long a trip. The hope is that nonstop service will overcome that perception.

As tourism minister Davis noted, you can have a meal, watch a few films, and wake up in the land of the hobbits, just a short hop from the beach.

Initially, service is scheduled for three times a week—Wed., Fri., Sun.–though that may increase based on demand, as happened in Houston.

As currently configured, the 787-9 Dreamliner can hold 302 passengers and features 18 fully lie-flat beds in Business Premier in a 1-1-1 pattern, 21 seats in Premium Economy configured 2-3-2, and 263 seats in Economy arranged 3-3-3, though some rows of three can be converted to a slightly wider Skycouch. I’m told, however, that different equipment is under consideration. 

Air New Zealand is known for, among other things, excellent food and wine. I wasn’t on the inaugural flight, but a passenger I chatted with said that everything about the service was very good.

If the meals on the plane are anything like consultant chef Peter Gordon’s (The Sugar Club and Bellota in Auckland, and The Providores and Tapa Room in London) appetizers and entrees for a reception at Revel Motor Row, an historic 1936 building-turned-event-space, I can believe it.

The salmon with wild mushrooms ranked right up there with the Tasmanian salmon I ate in Auckland almost 20 years ago.