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December 25 has come and gone, but standing in front of Boeing’s new 787-9, Air New Zealand CEO Chris Luxon is bouncing on his heels as if he’s just unwrapped the Dreamliner on Christmas morning.
Later this year Air New Zealand will be the world’s first airline to fly the Boeing 787-9 – a stretched version of the original 787-8 Dreamliner, capable of carrying more passengers over longer distances but with the same fuel efficiency and lower emissions as the ‘dash 8’.
But this particular jet, nestled in a hangar at Auckland airport on a brief respite from a battery of extensive flight tests, has special significance for Luxon.
“I’m really excited about this aircraft, especially because this is one of our aircraft” the highly-respected airline CEO enthuses.
“After it finishes its tests for Boeing it will be reconfigured with our seats and repainted in our new livery”.
Although that reconditioning won’t happen until late next year, Air New Zealand will take delivery of its very first Boeing 787-9 this July.
As the flagship of the Dreamliner fleet it will be painted in a special ‘all black’ edition of the Kiwi carrier’s new livery, Luxon tells Australian Business Traveller, while the nine jets to follow will receive the more standard white-and-black treatment (below).
Pilot training underway
That first 787-9 will be piloted by Air New Zealand chief flight operations officer Captain David Morgan.
“My first time behind the stick of the -9 will be when I accept the plane in July” Morgan tells Australian Business Traveller, although has already flown a 787-8 from Seattle to Auckland.
Over the coming months Morgan and other Air New Zealand pilots will be racking up their hours on a ‘state of the art’ Boeing 787 flight simulator which Morgan says cost the airline “north of NZ$10m” (A$9.25m).
While currently configured for the original 787-8 model, in the next few months it will be fully upgraded with -9 flight data – much of it coming from the current test aircraft.
“The main difference for the pilots is that this aeroplane has got more flap options than the -787-8” Morgan explains.
“There’s another flap detent setting because the plane is a little heavier and a little longer, so the aerodynamics are slightly different.”
The trans-Tasman Dreamliner
Air New Zealand’s Boeing 787-9 will make its official debut on October 15th flying between Auckland and Perth, one of the routes its shares with partner Virgin Australia.
Prior to that the next-gen jetliner will also appear on trans-Tasman flights from Auckland to Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane from “sometime in July or August, definitely in September” Morgan says.
“There’s no requirement to do proving flights as part of the certification in New Zealand” he explains, “but we will put the aircraft into service across the Tasman for crew training and also to ensure that the aeroplane is integrated seamlessly into our network”.
“We’re certainly not going to have it sitting around on the ground after the delivery in July!”
Air New Zealand expects to take delivery of two more Boeing 787-9s in September and October, which will be used for daily flights to Shanghai and Tokyo, along with some Tokyo-Christchurch flights.
Chris Luxon sees the 787-9’s sweet spot in the Air New Zealand network as the long routes to Asia, which he describes as “premium leisure travel markets” compared to the “business and leisure” mix of North America.
“For us this aircraft is really perfect for the Asian markets, and it’s perfectly configured with lie-flat business class and our new premium economy.”
While the 787-9 is capable of taking on Air New Zealand’s key US routes such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, Luxon says the airline’s larger Boeing 777-300s “will continue to point into North America.”
And then, a one-year wait…
But it’ll be another full year before Air New Zealand gets Dreamliners four and five, which are due in September-October of 2015.
The reason for the long wait, Captain David Morgan explains, is because the airline is gearing its Dreamliner services around the high season, especially for the Asian market at which the 787-9 will be aimed.
“There’s little point in bringing the aeroplanes in earlier than that because of our low seasons in the early-middle part of the year, so we’re ramping up for the (2015) high season” Morgan tells Australian Business Traveller.
Air New Zealand will take the remaining five 787-9s of its current order from 2016 to 2018, Morgan says, and the airline also has options for another eight Dreamliners under consideration.
Australian Business Traveller visited Auckland as a guest of Boeing.
Follow Australian Business Traveller on Twitter: we're @AusBT