Air New Zealand will target Asian routes with the Boeing 787-9, a stretched version of the "Dreamliner", as it looks to benefit from a boom in the number of tourists taking holidays in the country.
"The way we have configured this aircraft works better for the leisure traveller we have coming from the Asian markets," Air NZ chief executive Christopher Luxon said on Sunday. "We'll end up with a widebody fleet of 25 aircraft. We will have 15 777s and 10 Dreamliner-9s. That will enable us to access more of the markets in the Pacific Rim. We will point [the 787-9] more into the Asian markets and continue with the 777s into the North American markets."
Air NZ, the largest shareholder of Virgin Australia Holdings, is Boeing's launch customer for the 787-9 and has chosen a configuration of 302 seats, including 18 in business class, 21 in premium economy and 263 in economy class.
The airline is due to receive its first plane in July after the manufacturer completes a testing program that includes hot weather tests in Alice Springs this week.
Auckland to Perth will serve as the first commercial route from October 15, followed by Auckland-Shanghai and Auckland-Tokyo as it takes delivery of three planes by the end of the year. But before launching the Perth route, Air NZ will also use the aircraft on some flights from Auckland to Sydney as it integrates the 787-9 into its fleet.
Jetstar last year took delivery of its first 787-8, making it the only Australasian airline to fly the Dreamliner to date.
Qantas has options on up to 50 787-9s but chief executive Alan Joyce has said they will be exercised only if its loss-making international business returns to profitability.
He has highlighted the potential for the plane to fly direct between Sydney and Dallas, which is at the upper end of its range. Qantas currently uses a 747 for that flight and stops in Brisbane on the return.
Mr Luxon said Air NZ had considered using the aircraft for long-haul flights like Auckland-Chicago and Auckland-Mumbai but decided it would require too much of a sacrifice of passengers or cargo for weight reasons to make those routes work.
"As the aircraft has been designed operationally it is very difficult for it to do those sorts of distances," he said.
Boeing 787-9 technical pilot Daniel Boorman said the 787-9 has a slightly longer range than the 787-8 despite the added weight from the additional length due to the engines and aerodynamics, although the fuel capacity is nearly the same.
A test aircraft, which will eventually be delivered to Air NZ, landed in Auckland on Saturday evening following a 13 hour, 49 minute flight from Seattle. The manufacturer is hoping the temperature in Alice Springs remains above 38 degrees to allow for specific hot weather tests.
Boeing 787-9 test operations manager Ryan Smith said the aircraft would be left in the sun during the day and then flown for an hour or two in the evening to test its performance in the heat. Other features, such as it automatic landing system, will also be tested in Australia.
Air NZ chief pilot David Morgan said his airline would move pilots currently flying its 767s and 777s over to the 787-9. A 787-8 simulator was delivered to Auckland last month and will be updated with new software once Boeing completes its tests on the 787-9.
Morgan will serve as one of the pilots on its delivery flight from Seattle in July.
The reporter travelled to Auckland as a guest of Boeing.