While revelers in a fixed location are stuck with one countdown, travelers can usher in a succession of New Year’s Days as their planes cross time zones and the international date line. They can mark the new year completely in the air, as Hawkins did on a cross-country flight; on the ground in two destinations thousands of miles apart, such as Guam and Honolulu; or in a combination of land and sky.
Beauregard Fielding, an in-flight services manager with Air New Zealand, will celebrate two New Year’s Eves, by crossing the international date line. His first observance will occur soon after the plane departs from Auckland on Sunday night. His second will occur in Honolulu, which is 23 hours behind New Zealand’s North Island. The aircraft lands on the morning of the same day, so he and his colleagues will have plenty of time to rest and dress for the encore performance.
“As cabin crew for Air New Zealand, working on a flight over the New Year period is always a little bit special,” Fielding said by email. “We get to see in the New Year in the sky and celebrate the occasion with customers at 35,000 feet.”
In 2017, a Hawaiian Airlines flight was supposed to depart from Auckland at 11:55 p.m. Because of a delay, the crew and passengers bid adieu to the old year while sitting on the tarmac. On arriving in Honolulu, flight attendant Grace Antipala welcomed the passengers to Hawaii — and to Dec. 31, 2017, again.
“Because of the two cities’ proximity to the international date line, we were able to travel backward in time and become time travelers,” she said.
On New Year’s flights aboard the Australian carrier Qantas, Ali Ahmad, a customer service manager with the airline, said the flight attendants will hand out tiaras, “Happy New Year” glasses and other event-appropriate accessories to boarding customers. He said flight attendants who miss the fete because of their break schedule will receive a belated reception.
“Our team works in shifts on long flights, so crew members who are not awake at the stroke of midnight are greeted with another small celebration and well-wishes when they return from their rest,” he said.
Mark Vanhoenacker, a British Airways pilot, said he can observe at least three New Year’s Eve celebrations on the Dulles-Heathrow route. As he takes off from Washington Dulles, people in London will be celebrating. “Not long before we land in London’s early morning, the New Year will at last reach Washington,” he said.
In between, he may raise a glass (containing no alcohol, of course) — or tea cup — to his fellow aviators and sailors crossing the Atlantic Ocean.
“As we fly eastward into one of the time zones that overlay the North Atlantic, we’ll encounter our own local New Years, one that we share with those on certain other mid-Atlantic jets and with the sailors on the ships whose lights we might spy on the darkness far below us,” Vanhoenacker said by email. “Perhaps in the cockpit we’ll raise a cup of tea to the moment.”
In the main cabin, the flight attendants will typically read the room to gauge whether the passengers are up for partying or down for a nap. Lauren Alcorn, a flight service manager with Virgin Atlantic, said the cabin crew wouldn’t wake up a plane of sleeping travelers but may count down the clock during meal service and offer free drinks for a toast. The flight crew may join in the cheers with a nonalcoholic cocktail, such as apple juice mixed with sparkling water.
The flight attendants really cut loose on a flight a few years ago from the Caribbean island of St. Lucia to London. They danced the conga down the aisle. Some customers jumped out of their seats to join the procession.
“We conga’d our way round the entire plane,” Alcorn said.
On Hawkins’s cross-country trip, he hopped on the intercom and instructed everyone who lived in the time zone below to switch on their call button. He gave them 10 seconds to do that and handed out free drinks to folks with the small overhead light illuminated.
A United flight from Houston to Rio de Janeiro was more raucous. The flight attendants, including Hawkins, distributed champagne, sparkling wine and apple juice to the passengers, depending on their age, while the pilot counted down to zero. The Brazil-bound crowd turned slightly wild.
“With all of the hollering and yelling, I thought the plane was going to fall out of the sky,” he said of the 2021 trip, “but everybody was super celebrating.”
In addition to the complimentary beverages, countdowns and impromptu dancing, passengers are often treated to a fireworks display stretching from coast to coast or country to country. Because of the high altitude, they can’t hear or smell the fireworks or see their shapes distinctly, but Hawkins said the spectacle is still spectacular.
“It is just like flying on the Fourth of July,” he said. “You see different clusters of fireworks, and the clouds light up in blues, oranges, reds and greens.”
One of Al Bridger’s most memorable New Year’s Eves took place on a flight over Africa. For the millennium trip, the British Airways captain said the crew changed into ball gowns and black tie. They commemorated the new century by playing the London bell Big Ben over the intercom. As a parting gift, everyone received a “time traveler” certificate, marking a special event that will not occur for another 76 years.