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Air New Zealand passengers take 16-hour flight to nowhere

The plane left Auckland for New York. It landed back where it started.

An Air New Zealand aircraft flies over Auckland Airport. (Brendon O'Hagan/Bloomberg)
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Passengers boarded their Air New Zealand flight to New York City on Thursday evening prepared to spend 16-plus hours in the air — which they did. But they didn’t expect to land right back where they started.

That was the fate of Flight NZ2, which turned back to Auckland over the Pacific Ocean because of a power outage at its destination, John F. Kennedy Airport.

The airport said on Twitter that an electrical panel failure caused the power outage as well as a “small isolated fire” that was put out immediately.

“A power outage at JFK Terminal 1 is impacting the terminal’s ability to accept inbound and outbound flights,” the airport’s Twitter account posted. “We are working to accommodate impacted flights using other terminals.”

In an updated statement, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey said the terminal would remain closed Friday “due to electrical issues as the Port Authority continues working with the terminal’s operator to restore flight operations as quickly as possible.” Of the 64 flights scheduled to arrive and depart at the terminal Friday, 39 were canceled, the port authority said. Work to finish repairs and restore power was still underway, and “limited operations" were expected to start at the terminal on Saturday as long as repairs and testing were finished.

Travelers were advised to check with airlines on their flight status before going to the airport.

Despite the efforts to find space for incoming planes elsewhere on Thursday, several flights couldn’t make it to other terminals. Flights from Seoul, Rome and Milan all returned to their origin airports, flight-tracking websites showed; the Korean Air flight was in the air for 13½ hours. Several other flights were diverted to alternate U.S. airports.

“The airline recognized that a diversion was inevitable about 5 hours and 30 minutes into the 14-hour flight from Seoul Incheon to New York JFK," Korean Air said in a statement. “All options have been considered, and a decision was made to return to Incheon in light of multiple factors such as distance travelled and operational circumstances.”

Air New Zealand said in a statement that the Auckland-New York flight “was forced to divert back to Auckland” because of the fire and terminal closure.

Multiple observers tracking the saga on social media questioned why the airline couldn’t land instead at another U.S. airport.

“Imagine flying for almost a day to.. immediately have to fly all the way back home,” one person wrote.

The New Zealand Herald reported that most passengers discovered they were turning around as they viewed their path on in-flight screens. One passenger, Michele Carbone, told the publication that she had already had a flight canceled on Monday due to Cyclone Gabrielle and would get to the U.S. four days later than she initially planned.

“If you were to gather all the people from that plane in their room right now you’d find them boiling with annoyance and anger," she told the Herald.

Qantas is testing the world's longest flight: 19 hours

The airline said landing at another airport in the United States would have ultimately been too disruptive for the carrier’s operations. Air New Zealand launched the route to New York — one of the longest in the world — in September.

“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,” the statement said. The flight landed Friday afternoon local time, and passengers were rebooked on flights scheduled to leave Friday night and Saturday.

“Gotta be up there as one of the worst diversions ever of all time,” wrote Jason Rabinowitz, a travel analyst, on Twitter.

In January, an Emirates flight that left Dubai turned around and landed in the same place after a fruitless 13-hour flight because of airport flooding. Its intended destination: Auckland, New Zealand.