China Airlines is using a brand new Boeing 777 freighter to get New Zealand cherries and other fresh produce to Asian markets over the holidays.
The first flight between Christchurch and Taipei is due to take off tonight with around 85 tonnes of fresh food on board, about half of those cherries.
South Island cherry growers are desperate to get thousands of tonnes of their crop into the high value Asian markets. Air capacity is short as most freight was carried in the bellies of passenger aircraft before Covid-19 rocked air travel.
The Taiwanese airline's dedicated freighter can carry up to 100 tonnes.
The new freight service will operate three times a week and the cherries on tonight's flight are destined for Taipei and on connecting services to Shanghai, Guangzhou, Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi and Bangkok.
Lobsters will go to Shanghai, avocados to Bangkok and mussels will be flown on to Korea, part of the airlines' network of 93 destinations beyond Taipei.
China Airlines has been operating in New Zealand for more than 10 years and its freight services have been subsidised this year by this country's government air freight capacity scheme.
Pre-Covid China Airlines operated a daily passenger flight A350 or B777 aircraft Taipei-Brisbane-Auckland and return on the same route.
China Airlines has a fleet of 66 widebody aircraft of which 18 are Boeing 747 freighters and the one 777 freighter deployed on the Christchurch route.
Air New Zealand Cargo estimates it will fly around 2500 tonnes of cherries to Asia markets in January – the equivalent of around 21 Boeing 787-9s.
More than 1 million kg New Zealand lamb will be flown to Britain, around 600,000kg of blueberries to Australia, more than 800,000kg of capsicum into Japan and another 300,000kg into Australia between December and March.
General manager cargo Anna Palairet said: "This year, cargo has played a big role in helping our export community maintain international trade links at a time when global supply chains were heavily disrupted."
It had also played a vital role in keeping the airline afloat when much of its passenger network hasn't been operating.