When Cathay Pacific flight CX123 lands in Christchurch early tomorrow morning, it will be breaking new ground.

The airline has been flying to Auckland for the past 35 years, but the new seasonal service will directly link the South Island to Hong Kong for the first time.

The airline will fly three times a week for the next three months, adding another 11,000 seats and boosting the South Island economy by an estimated $12 million.

Cathay will use a near-new Airbus A350XWB, the same type of aircraft it introduced to the Auckland service just over a year ago.

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The 280-seat plane has 38 business class seats, 28 in premium economy and 214 economy seats.

Cathay's country manager for New Zealand and the Pacific Islands, Mark Pirihi, said commercial partner Air New Zealand would code-share on the Christchurch route.

The service is part of a joint venture agreement (JVA) with the New Zealand airline where the Government required both to show they were growing links with Hong Kong in return for allowing co-operation.

''Part of the role of the JVA is to increase services and more options for the customer - we've done that in Auckland with double daily flights and now Christchurch,'' said Pirihi.

As part of the original deal, Cathay took over Air New Zealand's loss-making service between Hong Kong and London.

Pirihi said the Christchurch service was a milestone for Cathay.

Mark Pirihi, Cathay Pacific country manager for NZ and the Pacific Islands. Photo / Supplied
Mark Pirihi, Cathay Pacific country manager for NZ and the Pacific Islands. Photo / Supplied

''This route provides travellers with a one-stop service from Christchurch to a multitude of destinations across Asia and Europe via Hong Kong. This is an important milestone for Cathay Pacific as we continue to invest in the region."

The A350 can also carry up to 20 tonnes of cargo and this provided export opportunities for producers of food such as cherries, stone fruit and fish.

Cathay has a massive freight operation in Hong Kong, an important cargo hub for Asia and beyond.

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Christchurch Airport says that based on Cathay Pacific's passenger mix on Hong Kong-Auckland flights, it estimates total inbound tourist spending in the South Island from the new service would be about $12 million for the season.

That does not include those tourists' spending in the North Island.

Cathay Pacific will go head-to-head with mainland Chinese giant China Southern Airlines, which has stepped up flights between Guangzhou and Christchurch over summer.

China Southern is one of a number of regional rivals in Asia putting pressure on Cathay, which also faces a growing threat from other full-service carriers from the Middle East that fly the same routes as the Hong Kong-based airline.

In August, Cathay reported its worst half-year results in at least two decades, a loss of HK$2.05 billion ($380m), a result blamed on fierce competition and fuel costs, including losses from fuel hedging.

Qatar Airways announced on Monday that it has bought a 9.6 per cent stake in Cathay, reportedly for US$662m ($950m).

Pirihi said sales for the Christchurch service were strong, and most traffic was inbound from Asia. The airline's growing network in Europe would also provide opportunities to expand inbound tourism and for South Islanders to fly more directly without a stop in Auckland.

An Airbus A350XWB-900. Cathay has 21 of them and seven more on order. Photo / Supplied
An Airbus A350XWB-900. Cathay has 21 of them and seven more on order. Photo / Supplied

Christchurch Airport chief aeronautical and commercial officer, Justin Watson, said although the rate of Chinese tourist growth had flattened overall, through Christchurch it had risen by 30 per cent in the past 12 months.

Many were the high-value free independent travellers (Fits), younger and willing to travel to a wider variety of South Island centres.

He said Cathay Pacific would complement China Southern's strong presence in the city.

''It's really their network that offers the greatest opportunities by opening up Asia and Europe.''

Pirihi said two Cathay staff would be based in Christchurch for summer, but ground handler PlaneBiz would look after passengers before boarding and do ramp work. Catering would be done by LSG.

Cathay analysts would assess the operation at the end of February to see whether it could be expanded. The seasonal service is scheduled to return next summer.

The A350-900
List price: $450 million
Can carry: up to 325 passengers
Wingspan: 64m
Cruise speed: 950km/h
Max cabin width‎: ‎5.61m
Fuselage: Made largely of carbon fibre