It's hard to imagine now, but when Air New Zealand's first Boeing 747-400 made its maiden touchdown at Auckland International Airport 20 years ago it created quite a sense of excitement.
This was a widebody airliner, the latest version of the iconic Boeing 747, with more room for passengers, a lighter body and a greater range. It was the aircraft of the future - bigger, better and faster - and its arrival was a signal of confidence that the aviation industry's prospects were bright.
But last week, when that first Boeing 747-400 took off from Auckland for the last time - heading for Roswell, New Mexico, where it will be dismantled for parts - its departure provided a very different signal about the future.
"The final flight of [the plane] is a sad and very visible example of the effects of the economic downturn on Air New Zealand," commented Air NZ group general manager international airline Ed Sims. "We are seeing long-haul demand down more than 10 per cent."
Reflecting that falling demand, the replacement 777-200s carry 20 per cent fewer people - 304 compared with 379 - and the standard configuration has nearly half as many business premier passengers.
Perhaps more importantly, the 777-400s, which over the next three years will become the long-haul mainstay, use 15 per cent less fuel per passenger as well as having superior cargo capabilities.
And the 787-9, which is scheduled for delivery in 2013, uses around 27 per cent less fuel per seat.
At a time of growing concern over aviation's contribution to greenhouse gas production, not to mention the inevitability of higher fuel costs, those are crucial advantages. And, in my opinion, the 777s are also nicer to fly in.
So the departure of the original 747-400 evokes mixed feelings.
On the one hand it has been a great workhorse, opening up the world for a great many Kiwis, as well as introducing New Zealand to a great many overseas visitors. In fact the statistics released by Air NZ to mark its farewell show just how hard these planes are worked: in its time that aircraft has completed more than 11,400 flights, flown over 88,300 hours (spending half its life in the air) and travelled an estimated 80 million kilometres (the equivalent of 100 round trips to the moon).
On the other hand, its replacement is a more comfortable plane, its fuel efficiency should help keep fares down and - if you worry about such things - your carbon-offsetting won't require as many trees to be planted.
Most of all, though, the changing of the guard in the air confirms that the aviation industry - and Air NZ in particular - is serious about taking steps to meet the challenges of tomorrow rather than those of yesterday.
- Jim Eagles
Pictured above: Air NZ's Boeing 747-400 has flown her last voyage. Photo / Martin Sykes